Let’s get started on the topic of relating to fundamentalists in your life. This section includes the following topics:
- When fundamentalists are still in your life
- Loving and leaving fundamentalists
- Relating to family members
- Letting off steam
- Dealing with questions
- Choosing to stay
- More tips
INTRODUCTION to RELATING TO FUNDAMENTALISTS IN YOUR LIFE
Many readers are from fundamentalist families and likely have ongoing contact with fundamentalist parents, siblings, and extended family members, if not their own spouses and children. This section addresses the oftentimes stressful interactions with these fundamentalists.
When offspring leave a cult, they are welcomed back with open arms by the family. When offspring leave fundamentalism, the exact opposite happens. Now the one who has left the fold is a backslider, a sinner, running after the “lusts of the flesh,” “worldly” – whatever terminology your group uses. Instead of being greeted with open arms, you may experience parents praying for you, witnessing to you about their faith, and giving you “things to read.”
You, at the same time, may be off-balance and vulnerable. You are in the middle of a huge life change, essentially changing your self-identity, perhaps without a supportive network around you. You sense what you are leaving, but you don’t know where you are going. Your parents think you are lost, and you may indeed be lost – only not for the reasons they think. You may feel that you are in an alternate reality with them, where up is down and down, up.
To you, seeking freedom is good. They interpret your independence as devilish. You may yearn to walk out the door and not come back. You may be struggling with multiple issues and doing your best to honestly face tough questions about faith and life, maybe for the first time. You may be very wobbly, just starting to speak your thoughts to yourself, to recognize your emotions, and to take baby steps of freedom.
Meanwhile, the evangelicals in your life are sailing through, happy and content in the thought that they are in the center of the deity’s will and that there is a purpose for everything they and you are going through. Those comforting thoughts may be closed to you. You are realizing that you are on a different path and that you are responsible for your own life. It can be a lonely place to be. You might be isolated, at least until you establish some other relationships outside the fundamentalist group.
You have to protect yourself against these fundamentalists who are stuck in their own limited worldviews. Without meaning to be, your fundamentalists can be toxic to you. On the other hand, you and they have a history that goes back a long way. You probably care about each other and don’t want to be hurtful to each other.
Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
The scene can get worse. Here’s what some readers live with:
You may have to bear up under so much that you so dislike — possibly even hate — especially when you are the subject and object of a mind, of all the inhuman righteousness, the criticisms and blame for a human world that was destroyed inside the fundamentalist a long time ago. You can be human in relation to these people who are no longer and can’t function as human beings. The concept of an underlying fundamentalist anger may be one that no one has even brought to light.
WHEN FUNDAMENTALISTS ARE STILL IN YOUR LIFE
Relating to fundamentalist parents can be a lifelong challenge.
“It was over. And for the first time the air was empty around us. For the first time it was not full of hatchets and blame and unworthiness.” – Unknown source
I read these words as my fundamentalist mother lay dying and they brought tears to my eyes, tears for what might have been in a mother-daughter relationship. I had a brief experience of what “might have been” at the beginning of my life and at the end of hers, and I was glad for both times. The church got the middle part, and that was most of the years of her and my life. No, we didn’t have “hatchets and blame and unworthiness” – but sometimes there was resentment and sometimes love, sometimes anger and then letting go, sometimes a clash of wills. Mostly, she seemed to have an opinion on every subject and knew what was “right.”
It wasn’t easy, lots of time, but I guess we did ok. We each put up with each other, didn’t ask many questions, kept to safe topics, and did the best we could. I was there for my mother during her years of decline. She would look up with a big smile when I came in and say, “You’re here. I’m so glad. I always feel better when you’re here.” She was nicer than I was then. I still had my protective barrier up, because I never knew when the fundamentalist would re-appear. For years, I had been a black sheep and my parents the white sheep.
I gritted my teeth through the church funeral, knowing that this is what I’d have liked to say to the pastor: “Your religion cost me my parents and my brother, and if I grieve today, I grieve for what might have been, not only for myself but equally for them. You call it a religion of love, but it splits families. You call it a religion of love, but it is based on fear.”
We can be compassionate with fundamentalist parents, because we know that they made decisions that determined their future. They made one decision, to give up their lives, and that was that. We don’t have to take their absence personally, but we can also hold them to account for taking the easy way out, for ignoring emotional discrepancies, and for loving their souls’ security more than they wanted to know, and know how to love, their children.
Be prepared for the opinions of fundamentalists about you.
Many fundamentalists would believe that any or all of these statements would hold true about any person leaving the fundamentalist group:
- You never were a real Christian, even though you thought you were.
- If you had gone to their church, you would have found Christ.
- If you really had known Christ personally, you wouldn’t have been tempted away from him.
- You are confusing a church with a relationship with God.
- You are full of pride and haven’t humbled yourself before God.
- You have been led astray by sin.
- You look to the wisdom of men, and this is foolishness with God.
- The problem is with you, not with Christianity.
- Your leaving the church is irrelevant, because “once saved always saved.”
Look for the presuppositions common in this above list.
See if these presuppositions fit your religious experience:
- Humans are insufficient without God.
- Humans need to be fixed.
- Humans can’t trust themselves. They can only trust the “correct” interpretation of God and the scriptures.
- If the religion doesn’t work for them, it’s their fault, not the religion’s.
To which I reply, No, I don’t accept those presuppositions. Maybe there’s something wrong with a religion that lays this authoritarian guilt trip on humans. Maybe fundamentalism is an anti-human, anti-intellectual tyrannical system of thought similar psychologically to a cult. Maybe fundamentalism robs one’s life and makes one into an obedient and docile slave and then convinces that individual that slavery is their highest destiny.
As one unidentified writer said, “Life is so much easier for fundamentalists. They don’t think.” They don’t have to think. Everything is laid out for them.
In contrast, maybe once I accept that I am human and am not perfect, I can love myself and realize that there is both darkness and light within me and that I have the power of choice, and the power to use my brain freely and to question – something that I didn’t have in fundamentalism. In fundamentalism I had but one choice…to give up my life, and everything followed from that.
We former “fundies” likely recognize that to come to peace within ourselves – and to gain a satisfying understanding of why we no longer want to be fundamentalists – will take work and time. The tentacles of mind control can extend deep. We understand that we are going to have to be patient with ourselves. But we recognize that we have only one life on this earth, and we want to do that work so that we can enjoy being human again, or being human for the first time.
Expect these common characteristics of interactions with fundamentalists.
- Expect there to be disinterest in facts. Books are irrelevant, once one has the bible.
- Even if negative facts were to cross a fundamentalist’s path, he would incorporate them into his ideology. “That’s no surprise, because people are bad, because they’re under the control of the devil. If things are terrible politically, etc., it’s all part of the lead up to Armageddon, and pieces of the puzzle are falling in place fast now.” Rationality is not needed.
- The sense of time is different, i.e., earth time vs eternity. Facts are little stuff. “You and your opinions and your little troubles and testiness are little stuff. I love you and I’m praying for you. That’s the big stuff.”
- Impenetrable. I could say anything cataclysmic to a fundamentalist (“What have they done to your thinking?”), and it would roll off a fundamentalist’s back. They live in a different place. There is no penetration that gets through their walls… except if what I say is perceived as a threat. When I say something that differs from their point of view, it may well be greeted as a bull greets a red cape, as a cat pounces on catnip.
- A fundamentalist may be clueless as to who she herself is, let alone who you are.
- There may be buried anger that erupts because the fundamentalist cannot control you. Sometimes the recovering fundamentalist may suspect buried jealousy, that the fundamentalist would like to go his or her own independent way, too, but cannot.
LOVING AND LEAVING FUNDAMENTALISTS
When one leaves fundamentalism, the family often is fundamentalist. Love for them and desire for your own freedom come into conflict. Situations that can be particularly wrenching include:
- One spouse outgrows fundamentalism and the relationship, and the other doesn’t.
- The fundamentalist children may be told that the “black sheep” parent is going to hell.
- Sometimes separation and divorce may be the most humane choice, but the pair cannot financially afford to set up two households.
- Responsibilities to elderly fundamentalist parents may have to be recognized and honored, even at great cost to oneself.
What is the right thing to do in such situations? There may be no right thing. Many recovering fundamentalists have put miles between themselves and their birth families, perhaps building new lives on the other side of the country, if not the other side of the world. Not everyone can do that, or wants to do that. When spouses and children are involved, the choices are even more limited.
TO GO OR TO STAY?
Living with or near fundamentalist family members is more than many exiting fundamentalists can handle. They may move away, marry out of the faith, and seldom have touch with their birth families. Others hang in there, keeping to themselves and negotiating two different worlds. Whether you stay or go is very much an individual decision. The decision depends a lot on where the exiting fundamentalist is in understanding and maturity, but also on the characteristics of the fundamentalist family:
Some fundamentalist families are fairly reasonable and sweet, agreeing to disagree. Some are rather oblivious, assuming that you were originally saved and “once saved always saved” and that you will see the light in your own time. Others react with great anger and can be dangerous to be around, verbally and maybe even physically. They go on the attack and can be bullies. Others have hidden anger, maybe even hatred, when they cannot control you. Others turn out to be more open than you might think. Perhaps they had a son mistreated by a former wife, and that experience makes them more reasonable about divorce.
When the exiting fundamentalist is a teenager, the parents may try to break the will of their son or daughter. They force the teen to go to church, to participate in family bible reading and prayer, not leave home until the teen “surrenders,” or sees a fundamentalist counselor or speaks with the minister. When I was young, I went to bible camp every summer. One summer, an unhappy camper was there against her will. During the week, she drowned herself. She was 13.
Some fundamentalist family members are quiet, holding their peace, and others keep coming at you to say “what God lays on their heart.” With my mother, the Peanuts cartoon seemed apt where one little girl says to the other, “Don’t call me sir.” The other replies, “OK, sir.”
Some fundamentalist family members are blockheads and nothing can get through. Maybe more often than not, an exiting fundamentalist sooner or later experiences “all of above” with the fundamentalist birth family, and maybe too with a marital partner. At its worst, the family situation can be crazy-making in the extreme and a lot to handle when you are vulnerable yourself.
PERILS OF STAYING NEAR THE FUNDAMENTALIST FAMILY
If your family is toxic to you, you will be in a toxic environment when you are around them. Perhaps their energy is bad, and you don’t like being around them. This isn’t healthy for you and can be harmful. Maybe you will be depressed, feel guilty, be angry, escape into sugary foods, etc. I went out after one stressful exchange with my mom and had a car accident, fortunately just a fender-bender.
In one of his talks at an Episcopal church, Chris Hedges spoke about honoring one’s parents. He said that even when the parents weren’t parents, where there might have been abuse, we still can honor them as our biological parents. We can honor our parents even as we pass far beyond them. Don’t get stuck on the “honoring” part. Do that, but keep your eyes on the road ahead. You can pass far beyond your parents – and your spouse.
When I was a fundamentalist child, I was different, even then. My parents had their fundamentalist agenda and were talkers in those days, both of them – the Midwest story-telling kind of folk. My nickname was “the Sphinx.” My silence in the family became accepted as who I was…and that lasted through the death of my mother.
My parents loved me dearly but didn’t give much evidence of wanting to listen to me, so the silence served me well. I could go on with my reading and the drama of my life without them getting involved in it. They also didn’t give evidence of being interested in who I was, but I think that was a generational thing. You don’t have to talk about everything. I knew they loved me as they could.
My mother seemed to measure my books by the pound, and my father hadn’t read an outside book since World War II. Only my return to the church would have caught their interest. So with my silence, we could enjoy each other on a more non-verbal level, and I maintained my separate inner existence. I knew not to bring up any subject that would set off one of their fixed opinions. Not every exiting fundamentalist is so lucky.
You may seek comfort in sugar because it is around the house with fundamentalists. Bring your own healthy snacks. A lot of fundamentalists are sugarholics. Dissolve some coconut oil in a hot drink or soup. Coconut oil depresses the appetite and makes eating normally easier. It can help with sleep if you put oil on your face before bedtime. Do an Internet search for details. Coconut oil is usually available locally, or on-line. I like the recipes (and prices) at www.tropicaltraditions.com – alas, another fundamentalist company.
Another thing that helps with sugar cravings is to go on the anti-candida diet…no sugar, fruit, white flour, etc. One physician puts almost everyone who walks in the door on this diet. His assistant told me that it takes about two weeks, but just about everyone feels better. If you are depressed, watch how you feel after eating something sweet, or the next day. You might feel depressed after sugar. If you do, check out “hypoglycemia.” It’s enough to deal with fundamentalist family members without adding in sugar-related depression. You can get a jump start to a good nutritional foundation with whole foods through plenty of books, websites, etc.
Other health issues can result from prolonged and extreme stress such as lowered adrenal function and lowered levels of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. If needed, get an assessment by a functional medicine doctor (www.fm.org) or a naturopath.
If family stressors claim your attention, you will have less energy and time for what you need to be doing. Your vitality can be drained away. Being around fundamentalists can make it harder for what you need to be doing, such as developing stronger boundaries when you are around folk that are clueless about respecting boundaries.
On the other hand, you may be living in just the very classroom you need to develop strength, wisdom, and compassion. Fundamentalist family members may also suffer because of added stress from you and because of concern about your eternal soul, but they go to prayer for an outlet.
PITFALLS OF LEAVING THE FAMILY
You may try to ignore and leave behind your experiences with fundamentalism and your birth family. Repression doesn’t work in the long run. None of us can just wake up different people one day, amnesiac and unaffected by the past. You probably are carrying some of the fundamentalist grid forward in your life without being aware that that is what you are doing. We spoke of “layering” in other sections of the web site.
Counseling can be helpful to help you through this period. I’d look for an intra-personal counselor (and probably some group sessions) based on Rogerian or Eriksonian theory. The support and understanding could be invaluable.
If you have family responsibilities, such as toward aging parents, then carrying on and doing the right thing may be difficult. You may be the only person aware of just how difficult it can be. I lived separately from my fundamentalist parents for 30 years before moving back with my mother after my father died. We were in different states, a few hours away. During the time apart, we kept in weekly phone contact and saw each other every few months. I don’t think I worked out much relating to them during the 30 years, though. They were good people and we just stayed away from controversial subjects. We enjoyed the times we had together.
As I write this, it sounds so benign… when in actuality it wasn’t so easy, not for any of us. Despite that, I think the hardest part was living in different worlds, when we all three wanted to be living in the same world. It was in coming back to live with my mother that I started to experience, observe, and write down the issues that form the backbone of this section.
How can you develop as a full human being while living with folk with whom you cannot share on a deep level and may actually have to protect yourself from? How can you do this while fulfilling responsibilities as a family member with as much grace as you can muster? Living with fundamentalists can be really hard when there’s nothing left in you to give and it seems cruel to have to continue in your present living arrangement. You may get to the point where you’re not talking except for the minimum to keep the house running. Your moving out may be the kindest thing for all concerned.
But maybe there is simply insufficient money to set up another household, or there are relationship responsibilities such as a sick spouse, a declining elder, young children or a disabled child. You know that you need to move out, that staying is harmful to you, and yet circumstances are such that you cannot move out. Staying in a fundamentalist situation because you perceive you have no choice about the matter, at least for the present, can take a great deal of courage. How can you develop as a full human being while in an oppressive atmosphere?
My dear, accept that that is the way it is and that you will do the best you can. Refining of gold is not an easy process. But what is the gold and how is it to be refined? The answers to those questions will be your journey.
The challenges will have two fronts. One front will be your own growth and development. The other front will be the fundamentalists in your life and however you can work out both relating to them and protecting yourself from them. Perhaps the difficulty of working this out will be the hardest thing you have had to do… a working out that continues day in and day out until circumstances change and you can leave.
Think of the countless married pairs in this situation. An article not too long ago noted that 40% of folk desiring divorce had to scale back their desires because of financial stresses. Think of the countless people co-existing in their houses, not enjoying real communication and intimacy. Now you may be one of them.
How can you co-exist in a way that is as tolerable as possible and allows each of you to go your separate ways, even while cooperating on mutual concerns (raising children, taking care of elderly parents, maintaining a house, paying the bills)? … all this, while your spirit yearns to be somewhere else, finally away from fundamentalists? Each person – you, too – should be able to live in an environment where you feel like singing, instead of where you feel a pulling down of your spirit.
Are there any resources out there for how to survive and thrive as best as possible in an inhospitable environment? Inhospitable? How can a fundamentalist family member be inhospitable? The fundamentalist is likely to be considerate, kind, “understanding,” hopeful, possibly unrelentingly cheerful and quietly self-assured and victorious – compared to the mass of contradictions and confusions that you might feel like at times. The “understanding” on the part of the fundamentalist can be the hardest of all to bear – where there is sympathy for you, when you don’t want sympathy and just want to be left alone. It can be like trying to get out of quicksand…until you remember that you need to be in your business, not in theirs.
If they want to show sympathy to you, that’s not your business. You can’t control them or their emotions. You may have a lot of hard work to do on yourself as you try to understand where you are and work towards developing your full humanity. Finding a wise and practical counselor may be one of the best things you can do, so that you are not alone. But even without a counselor, know that you are not alone. There are many of us out here who stood (and stand) in your shoes. We made it through, and you can, too.
Don’t be discouraged. Keep reading, work your Action Board, and keep focused on where you want to be down the road. You are living in a difficult situation and nothing is going to change that fact. There will likely be no rapprochement, no intimacy, with your fundamentalist family. Know your situation and what you have to do to maintain your own life.
It’s not your fault that your family is content with easy answers, with surrender, and with an invisible friend. Those are the choices they have made for their lives. You are making other choices, and that is ok. Let them go. You cannot control them. You cannot change them. You can live and let live, even if they may not be able to. Be kind to yourself. It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of a religion that sets up a dichotomy between the saved and the lost, the mindset of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
Your fundamentalists have church teachings that can overrule their human sensibilities and convince them it is right and godly to speak words that trample on people who disagree with them. On the other hand, the fundamentalists in your life are likely to be nice people. When you realize that they made their choices during conversion and that they cannot be other than they are now because they gave up their freedom to think and to own their feelings, then you can have some compassion for them. They love you the best they can in their own way.
I used to think that at death, I’d get my parents back when they (metaphorically speaking) looked over the gates of heaven and finally understood what they didn’t understand on earth. Dealing with a fundamentalist spouse can be especially hard. You might once have been close, even prayed together. Now perhaps you feel estranged and maybe even bored with the relationship. You know all there is to know. Your spouse is not growing out of fundamentalism, so the potential for things to change is slim.
These human drama issues are not easy. One of the hardest things for me was to see evangelicals as human and treat them as humans, when their bodies seemed to be absent of a human spirit as I now understand the human spirit. Nevertheless, we each have our own path. Your path is to become the best human being you can be, to fulfill your potential, to give back what you can. Your path is not to change fundamentalists or to obsess about them or to permit your life to be hijacked by a continuing and frustrating inner conversation with them. Let them go. They have their own paths.
Don’t look for a 100% success rate in dealing with them. 85% is fine, or less, at times. It’s ok not to be perfect in your dealing with them. Things will get easier. Be kind to yourself and to them. That said, do not underestimate the difficulties you may be facing.
While the fundamentalists feel secure and believe that God is on their side, you may be facing the collapse of your world, grieving for your loss, unsure of your direction, and depressed. You need someone to extend a kind hand to you. You don’t need to be up against clueless, oblivious fundamentalists day after day. But circumstances may dictate that you are. Figure out what your options are and go after the support you need. Find someone to talk to who understands, and if you cannot find that person, consider journaling. Check in with www.theWork.com for the 4 questions of Inquiry. Draw up affirmations and read them daily. Visualize each morning a path leading forward, and take steps along that path. Think about what you can do special for you that day and do it.
THE DILEMMA OF HURT FEELINGS
Often without meaning to be, fundamentalists can be hurtful to the recovering person. The fundamentalists operate from a different perspective, thinking they are doing good for the other person in trying to lead the wavering person back to their idea of God. The net result is that the recovering individual is pressured, and at times jolted by otherwise caring family members. David Viscott, M.D., said, “If someone doesn’t care about your feelings, they don’t belong in your life.”
For a recovering fundamentalist, that may be only one side of the coin. Even as your feelings and opinions are trampled by the fundamentalists, you also may know that they love you as they can and that they have been there for you. Or maybe not. Maybe they will write you off in anger if they cannot control you. If a person is lame, you don’t get angry at the person because he cannot run around the track. It’s the same with your fundamentalist family members.
You can accept that they are doing the best they can and not expect more from them than that. They can’t give what you want or need. You need to give up on trying to change them or to get them to understand you, because the odds are that it isn’t going to happen. You must take appropriate steps to preserve your integrity and sanity.
I would never hold it against the recovering fundamentalist who moves far away. Some fundamentalist families are very difficult to be around and even dangerous. Contact with them can make you ill. When family members are religious extremists, you may literally have to run for your life or take other means to protect your children. Do what you need to do. Bring in a counselor where necessary, especially when children are involved. Where control is an issue, family members might not take kindly to your independence.
Many times you don’t know how bad leaving the fundamentalist group can be until you actually leave. What you thought was a loving religion while you were in it can show an entirely different face if you leave. That may be when you realize that fundamentalism is a religion of fear. Your relation with your family will never be the same again.
If you need an attorney, take care in choosing one. Consider referrals from a group dealing with women’s rights or domestic violence. Stay away from fundamentalist attorneys who would likely have a built-in bias to keep the family together. You may not be able to keep the family together. You need someone to look after your interests and to dispassionately assess the situation.
If you need a psychological counselor, be careful in your choice. Try to find one with experience in reconstructing life after fundamentalism. Marriage counselors might not be appropriate for your situation, nor would counselors from your former religious persuasion. You need fresh air and a different perspective. You don’t need a counselor who has an agenda to keep the family together. Religious beliefs may have already split the family apart irreconcilably. This is not your fault. You are growing toward your full humanity, and your loved ones are leading surrendered lives.
A counselor or wise friend can be supportive to you as you interact with your fundamentalist family members and strive to be responsible and humane. This is often not an easy thing to do at all, and it can be helpful to have a sounding board.
RELATING TO FUNDAMENTALIST FAMILY MEMBERS
Fundamentalists may share a common mindset, but some are just nicer people than others. Some have intelligence; others are ignorant. Some have a degree of openness; others are impenetrable. Some have some humility due to hard life experiences; others are secure and think they have all the answers. Some can leave you in peace. Others are passive aggressive or controlling. Some are gentle; others are at the mercy of their own anger. Given the differences in people, let’s look at several common family scenarios.
Accommodating with a fundamentalist spouse
Some former fundamentalists come to livable terms with a fundamentalist spouse, perhaps for the sake of the children, perhaps because the spouses are willing to let each other go their own way on religion. I know families like that. The woman and kids were at church every Sunday. The man showed up for special events and might be found at special events helping out in the church kitchen. You and I are not present at the heart of the marriage. Are they happy? Can they share on deep levels? Is one spouse praying for the salvation of the other, praying that he will change because he is not OK in her opinion? That’s for them to know and act on as they will.
For myself, I long ago knew that if a spouse of mine got converted, I would consider that grounds for a divorce. In actuality, what if that really happened? If there were children involved? I guess we can’t know until we are in such a situation.
Love, real human love, can be the first to go in the face of ideology.
If you are married to, or dating, an intractable fundamentalist, then separation or divorce may be facing you. Loyalties are incompatible here, and two must be in agreement before they can walk together. That verse, of course, is more often used by fundamentalists, to show that they cannot be friends with us… but the reverse is true, too. We lack commonality to be friends, to be intimate, with them.
An agnostic acquaintance watched his mentally troubled wife finding a home at a charismatic church. She was obviously being drawn in, and he visited but wasn’t comfortable there. I don’t know the end of the story but know that love is the first thing to go, real love, human love. It is replaced with whatever the ideology. He should cut his losses now before it is too late for him.
We might not have the will to live with or to stay in close contact with our fundamentalist family members any longer.
For the former fundamentalist, it can be as if a shade comes down and we just can’t “do” fundamentalists any longer. That happened with me, after my mother died. I missed my mother, but it was a relief to be finished with the evangelical scene. When another fundamentalist with a special need crossed my path, I was faced with the question of what was a humane thing to do regarding her needs. I did what for me was the right thing, but doing that didn’t change the fact that on a personal level, I had nothing left to give emotionally.
It wasn’t a healthy situation for either of us while it lasted, and I had to make my boundaries clear. For me, it was a cruel stroke of fate that I had to take in another evangelical, even temporarily. After stressing over her being in my house, I verbally spelled out that there was no relationship here, just that of a landlady to a renter. It got easier after I made my boundaries and my limits clear and put a deadline for her moving out. We continued cordial to each other but went our separate ways and didn’t converse much. There was nothing in me to want to enter into a conversation with her, though she tried. I’d already paid my dues in spades with fundamentalists, over four decades. It was enough.
You probably shouldn’t be so blunt with a family member, but still, you may have to verbally establish your boundaries. They aren’t mind readers, and their religion sets in motion how they will act with you. Don’t act precipitously. Think your options through, and consider input from a counselor. Feelings can be hurt unnecessarily, so wisdom is called for. Words once said cannot be recalled. Your family members probably have tried their best with you and don’t deserve to be dumped on, nor are they likely to understand you.
Perhaps your fundamentalist spouse comes in the door, with a face lit up with “unconditional, undying, unrelenting love that drags you down” (phrase from p. 44 of Bury your Dead, by Louise Penny). You can’t respond in like manner. She will not comprehend why you want a separation and then a divorce, and she will be terribly hurt. You feel like a cad, knowing that you have to go on with your life but also knowing that you have been the cause of grief in others’ lives. It’s a terrible situation for all concerned. You wish you could walk out the door, fly away, and start a new life…but there are responsibilities.
Is going for a separation selfish? Consider the alternative – burying yourself in a relationship where you cannot be yourself, cannot be understood, and cannot scream if you need to without being put on someone’s prayer list. You have choices, as I did with my renter. If you let stress build up in you (stress to which your family members might be oblivious), you may end up feeling like a heel, responding to their warmth with reserve. Or, you can act constructively, though it may take some time to figure out what acting constructively means. Imagination may be needed. Be prepared for being judged.
Your family members may decide that you don’t know much about love and aren’t a happy person (and maybe you don’t, and aren’t, at that point, but that’s ok). They feel secure in their belief and choices for their life. They may feel superior to you. They’ll pray for you and get their friends to pray for you. So be it. Let them. There are joys yet to come for you. Have courage, and stay focused. Leave as soon as you can, if that’s what you decide. David Viscott said of decision-making that a feeling of relief is a mark of the right decision.
In some situations, there are arguments and disagreements.
If there are arguments with your fundamentalist family members, watch for patterns. An unhealthy cycle is described in the book, The Blue Orchard, by Jackson Taylor, where the passive aggressive fundamentalist elder sister helps her non-believer brother financially but makes him pay emotionally for it. When he, driven by her to the edge, snaps out at her, she comes off looking innocent, and he feels guilty and worthless. He is pressured to ask her forgiveness for snapping out, and then she loads more guilt on him. He then turns back to the bottle, and she has even more to blame him for.
If you find yourself in such a repetitive “dance,” see a counselor to better understand the dynamics and how to handle them.
When you tangle with an evangelical family member, the disagreement is never clean and has several layers of involvement. While the religion is often the cause of the disagreement, in the middle of the whole thing are these “nice” people who are oblivious. You, the challenger who has been pushed to the limit, can so easily slide into the villain role.
The frustration level can get so high from the fundamentalists that you reach your tipping point, even while they remain clueless. They come off looking nice, in contrast to your craziness, which leads to swirling emotions inside you. You may feel mired in guilt for being so unpleasant to this nice person who didn’t deserve all the unpleasantness and will never recognize nor own his own part in your frustrations. The fundamentalist sails on, oblivious. Just as they are oblivious to your frustrations, they are basically oblivious to you.
They may not have paid attention to who you are and are only concerned whether you are the same as they are. If you have to live in such a situation, you can learn adaptive responses so that you are not living under continual stress. See a therapist for assistance, if needed.
Why not just live below the radar with fundamentalist family members?
That’s not a bad plan and maybe the best we can do as former fundamentalists. Be aware of the price to be paid, though, even though there may be no choice. If you try to live below the radar, just keeping your thoughts to yourself, you can’t live a full life, especially not if you live in the same house. Compare your holding-back situation with that of a gay person who stays “in the closet.”
Here is a quotation from the book, If the Buddha Dated, by Charlotte Sofia Kasl:
“At a deeper level, being ‘in the closet’ is completely contrary to the spiritual path, because it is a profound denial of who we are and automatically means being embroiled in a web of secretiveness at work, with family, and friends…We constantly hold back, which starts to build armor around the heart… When people are not part of a supportive social network, the resulting isolation puts stress on a relationship… Being ‘in the closet’ keeps us constantly focused on our identity as a lesbian or gay person. On the other hand, if we are with others who have accepted our sexual orientation, or are part of a supportive spiritual community, and there are many, then we become just Judy, Andrew, Michael, Yolanda, Martha, Ruth. We’re not fixated on our lesbian or gay identity; we’re friends, joined in community, talking, getting to know each other, sharing our stories.” p. 119.
If you try to be yourself openly in a fundamentalist family (“speaking truth to power”), there is an excellent chance that this will backfire on you. The fundamentalists may not hear what you are saying and use what they think you mean as fodder for praying for you, or they may understand very well and have even more ammunition against you. You talk from a human perspective; they listen from a “heavenly” perspective. Either option may be a losing proposition for you: speaking up or not speaking up. Speaking up could make things worse, because you have exposed yourself to people who cannot hear. Emotions may be aroused that confuse you, that you are not ready to deal with. Tread carefully.
Complex emotions can be released.
Be prepared for mixed feelings, some of which may be volatile. I remember a newspaper article from long ago. A young man was arrested for stabbing his mother in the bathtub. He had written on the wall with her blood: “Jesus loves you, Ma.”
I could empathize with him and understand that these “innocent” long-suffering fundamentalists can drive a person off the deep end, but I knew that I would never do anything that would land me in jail for being out of control. I fought too hard for my freedom to give it up so easily. Once, during a time of particular frustration, If you feel on the edge, though, get help or move away. Don’t take a chance of getting out of control.
Let’s pause for an overview of the situation.
Your fundamentalists had the right to make a choice once, i.e., to convert. With that choice, they gave up their future choices. What they bought into was fundamentalist religion, and that comes with an opinion about virtually everything. Your fundamentalists have church teachings that can overrule their human sensibilities and convince them it is right and godly to speak words that are equivalent to trampling on other people who disagree with them. Being conscious that the fundamentalists in your life are trying to live in the past (2000 year old New Testament) and that you are living in the present might make things a little easier. You don’t have to expect so much of them, because you’ll know they can’t give it. Accept where they are but still hold them accountable for basic human decency.
On the other hand, recognize with whom you are living, and that religion has made this person’s beliefs the enemy of your freedom. The fundamentalist wants to see you surrendered, going back to what you were. That person would tighten as many screws as possible to make that happen. That individual is surrendered and may be used to being meek. That individual has a different loyalty than you do. Given a choice between his/her understanding of God’s will and you, you know which one would win.
This may sound really, really hard, because you are a good person and don’t want to think in these terms and because it is unnatural to think in these terms….but your fundamentalist is programmed, indoctrinated, cloned. When I was a member of now defunct Fundamentalist Anonymous many years ago, they used the film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” as a metaphor for what fundamentalist religion does…snatches one’s body. As stated before, a local church marquis proclaimed, “Our soul purpose – we catch ‘em, we clean ‘em, we clone ‘em.”
Would I have been better off leaving the family behind, moving cross-country, and setting up a new life? Maybe so, maybe not. There’s no right answer and no wrong answer. There are pluses and minuses any way you and I might go. All any of us can do is to make the best decisions we can, given the information we have – and recognize our responsibility to see the whole picture as best we can. We have homework to do to reclaim our humanity, and the corollary of not choosing easy answers is that for us, as for any humans who aren’t fundamentalist, the questions and answers can be hard and call for courage and only come in their own good time.
Keep in mind the type of home you’d like.
Your spirit longs for someone to share with on life’s deepest levels and you may instead be met instead with a relentless cheeriness and victory in Jesus or perhaps with pervasive sadness because of your waywardness. The sadness can be worse to be around than the cheeriness. You may be met with folk who just want to do for you, when you want to be left alone by them. You may want music in your life, and living in your household feels like “the day the music died” (from “American Pie,” Don McLean).
You want home to be where you can be yourself, even if that self has to occasionally scream, and you want to be able to scream without being put on a prayer list. Oh, you and I both know that you are already on that prayer list. Who cares? It’s a free country. People can pray for whomever they wish, and other people can put up their own inner “invisible shield” around them where those prayers cannot penetrate.
Even the concept – I see now – of an “invisible shield” may imply superstition, i.e., that the prayers are real and really to be feared, if one didn’t have an invisible shield. So maybe approach the prayers from a different perspective. Instead of dreading them, welcome them as a gesture of goodwill. “You want to pray for me? Your kind thoughts are enough for me,” and go on with your life. Who they pray for is their business.
Fundamentalists may be used to attacking.
We would do well to be prepared for aggressive fundamentalists. I made a tentative, rare attempt to share my feelings with my mother. “I used to feel invisible in the church.” Her response: “Well, now you know how I felt when you used to go off with your friends” (decades before). And that was the end of that. The fact that this was the first time I had said anything on that level in maybe 20 years didn’t register with her. I was dismissed.
I never knew when the attack might come, though it didn’t happen often because I knew how to avoid it. How do even committed fundamentalist partners work things out if one of them is impenetrable? One pastor, thinking he’d be helpful to me when I was struggling long ago, shared that sometimes he got so angry at his wife that he wanted to kill her. I can only imagine… Maybe fundamentalists have trouble with impenetrable fundamentalist spouses, too.
Expect ongoing cognitive disconnects.
A former fundamentalist was telling a fundamentalist about responses in a discussion group on the topic, “If you had a magic carpet, where would you like to go on vacation?” The fundamentalist first asked what the former fundamentalist said. “I said I’d like to go to Norway.” “Why?” “I’ve always wanted to see the beauty of the fjords.” Then the fundamentalist said, “What did the other people say?” “The responses were either about going to a place of beauty or to a place of ancestral significance.” The fundamentalist replied, “Did anyone say something deeper?”
What happened in this conversation? For the recovering fundamentalist, who loves this life, the celebration of beauty and of family history was more than sufficient for a magic-carpet vacation. For the fundamentalist, those were shallow reasons for travel. A trip to Jerusalem or to visit a mission field would be better reasons. Do you sense the differences here in perspective on life? Did you notice the following: If “love” means “paying attention to,” this was not an exchange of love. The fundamentalist was not interested in the life-affirming choices of the people choosing their dream vacations. The fundamentalist was interested in what was not said, in how none of the vacations measured up to the fundamentalist’s yardstick of a God-honoring vacation. The fundamentalist appeared to be listening judgmentally.
This was not communication. This was a religious tribunal on a small scale. The former fundamentalist again would fall short in the fundamentalist’s eyes. Meanwhile the fundamentalist would leave the conversation clueless and self-satisfied that she would have chosen a better trip. The former fundamentalist had put herself out there. She answered the fundamentalist’s question honestly. (Soon experience would teach her that such basic questions can represent a minefield.) Instead of a human connection (as one would expect in sharing on such a simple question), she and the other members of her discussion group got judged and dismissed. She would realize this viscerally, but the fundamentalist who did the dismissing would be clueless.
The next time the former fundamentalist was asked a question where she sensed the fundamentalist will judge the outcome, she would be self-protective because she had learned that the fundamentalist was not safe to talk with. This example, writ large, leads to a sad conclusion: Fundamentalists and former fundamentalists no longer speak the same language. One is heaven-centered, and the other is earth-centered. Their loyalties conflict. This leads us to the next point:
It may not be possible for you to have a deep relationship with a fundamentalist, even in your own family.
Do you want to expose your innermost feelings and thoughts to someone who wouldn’t understand them and would judge you for having them and would pray about them? For that matter, do you even want to expose your more casual opinions (on a dream vacation, for example) to someone, knowing they will be judging you? To answer a fundamentalist’s questions when judgment awaits is an invasion of privacy. “Thank you, but I think I won’t answer.” Or, deflect the question: “Oh, there were all sorts of responses. Where would you go on a magic carpet vacation?”
My parents weren’t question-askers. It was only in crossing paths with a fundamentalist who was that I realized how lucky I was that my parents could live and let live, for the most part. With the other fundamentalist, since she was oblivious to my non-committal, monosyllabic responses, I had to finally just ask her to please stop asking me questions.
An exchange like that, one human to another, can be painful. Do you want to share deeply with someone who will appropriate what you say and assure you that “they understand” and then give a clueless, sympathetic response? Do you understand that the conversation would not be between you and an open person, but with a person whose belief system is the grid through which they view life? That other person may not be able to hear what you would say.
Suppose you told your fundamentalist family that you needed to leave the church to explore life. Their response would not be, “Oh, great! We wish you health and happiness with this new chapter of growth and freedom. We’re here for you,” but rather something like, “God loves you, and I’m praying for you. Here’s a good book on using doubt to grow spiritually.” Which response would be more honoring to your spirit?
What happens when the fundamentalist is the one going through a rough time?
The normal human response is “hugs.” To be there with them. Unfortunately, the orientation of the fundamentalist is likely to be more toward “prayer partners” than it is towards you. And perhaps that is just as well, because you may have discovered that you do not speak their language anymore. What you would say may be opposite to their expectations. Their thinking would be wrapped up in “god-language,” and you don’t think in those terms now. They might not be open to hugs from you, and you might not want to touch them.
How do you relate with a fundamentalist family member?
First, stand back and get your perspective. Understand who your audience is and what the chances of breaking through to real communication are. Realize that you have been programmed to be nice and to never give up on a person. In contrast, I am telling you to give up on the fundamentalist. They have made their choice, to live a surrendered life, and if they don’t want something better, all the words in the world are not going to change anything. You can’t love someone enough to make them want more.
Chances are very good that they are not going to change. It is not your business to try to get them to change. Pay attention to your own business. Know that it is not selfish to go on with your life. I can imagine an imaginary speech given to the fundamentalist upon parting with them: “So now, you go on with your life, and I will go on with my healing journey, in a spirit of grace and thankfulness…and that grateful spirit extends to my experience of you, too.
My experience in your church – mosque – synagogue – temple – wasn’t always easy, but it was Classroom 101 for me in life, and the lessons learned there were good, both the pro and con lessons. Thank you. And if you ever need a lifeline, finally ready to take up the challenge of being fully human while putting religion on the shelf for the time being…I’m here for you, my hand is extended.” How realistic such a speech would be is another issue.
Realize that staying with a fundamentalist and trying to work out some sort of compromise relationship could be harmful for you. It may dampen your spirit, and you will be the one who has to compromise, not your mate/children/parents. Their fundamentalist framework will remain strong and uncompromised. If there is someone who goes to the back shed to find relief in a beer, it will be you, not them. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s hard to live with someone you can’t talk to.
If you nevertheless feel that you have to stay, be consciously kind to yourself. You have to be your own best friend here. Bide your time. Be kind to them, too, but don’t share when no one is listening. Live your life responsibly to the fullest you can, and you will be an example of real human life to your fundamentalist family members.
Here are some possible outcomes of doing this:
- They may have an underlying jealousy, anger, and even hatred for you, because they cannot control you. Perhaps, too, you represent the freedom they subconsciously wish they had for themselves.
- They may pray “without ceasing” for you. Let them. You can welcome “good energy” wherever it comes from, knowing that there is a human core in the most strident fundamentalist… somewhere in there.
- Understand that you will be “other” to your fundamentalist family members. They will not know what to do with you, other than pray for you. That’s their business, not yours. If they see themselves as the white sheep and see you as the black sheep, that’s their business, not yours. You have your place in the sun. They have theirs, too.
- The music may be gone for you at the house because of the bad energy coming from fundamentalists who can seem like zombies. Find your music elsewhere.
- You may “agree to disagree.” Conversation may revolve more around activities of daily living and avoiding anything relating to ideas. Accept them on their terms, even when they have trouble doing that for you. Seek what you want and need emotionally and intellectually elsewhere.
- Get a dog. A family dog can bring warmth and humor, bridging wordlessly gaps that words can’t. (If your area is full of ticks, maybe don’t get a dog. Lyme disease can be devastating.)
- If you are needed to care for a fundamentalist family member, know that duty without purpose can be draining. Do what you can to keep yourself strong. If the family member passes, understand that the grieving for the loss of the person may well have been life-long, since fundamentalism took your loved one long ago. If you grieve at their death, you grieve for what might have been in a human relationship. You grieve for what they missed in getting to know you as a person and what they missed in getting to know themselves as people. We can feel relief when our lives are physically free of fundamentalists, but if we have to stay where we are for the time being, then we have to find that relief in finding our human interaction elsewhere, because it’s likely not going to be with fundamentalists.
After my last parent died, I got out pictures of them as young adults, before they were converted, and put those pictures in my bedroom. I feel their spirits about me. Often a memory will come and tears will come to my eyes, and I’ll yearn to hold them without religion in the midst. They were my parents, and I had to hold myself back from them for long decades. How sad is that?
Fundamentalists can be boring people, and it is hard to relate to boring people.
I remember a telling anecdote from a visit my parents made to Florida where they attended a church in a community where four former pillars of their little evangelical church had retired. Mind you, my parents had not seen these individuals in about twenty years, and the little church they had come from had only had maybe 80 members, if that, so one would expect some sort of relationship with the four. When the church service was over, my parents looked for these four retirees. After a quick greeting, one of the four excused herself and the other three with the words, “We have to rush to get to the front of the line at such-and-such restaurant, because it is so crowded after church.” And off they rushed, leaving my parents behind.
In relating this story of my parents seeing these four, no comment was made about the strangeness of the encounter. Twenty years later… and nothing to say to each other. One of the 4 retirees was the Sunday School teacher who had so enchanted me as a 5-year-old when I was first brought to the small church.
It reminds me of the years of get well cards sent to my mother as her health declined, and then the bereavement cards sent to me upon her passing. If the senders didn’t have “we’re praying for you” to write, they might have had nothing at all to say. Even my mother got tired of this. “Why don’t they visit me instead of sending a card?” she logically asked, until she didn’t want the visits either. She enjoyed the company of the caretakers better, gals who were lively and jolly and made her laugh. My mother found her sense of humor again in the assisted living place.
What happens when you let off steam with your fundamentalist relation?
You may be tired or stressed out, and your words may be less tempered that you would wish. The truth may tumble out: “I don’t want to live with any evangelical. It’s time to move on. I’ve served my time.” Accept the reality of the situation. Words have been said. You feel some relief. What can you expect after your expression of your reality?
- First, know that you didn’t do wrong in speaking. It was what happened at the time. It stirred things up, at least for you. Accept it and move on.
- Know that your early teaching sets you up to feel guilty, an amorphous sense of guilt where you don’t know what you did wrong but you still can feel guilty. Move on from that. You didn’t do anything wrong. Your choice is whether to use your understanding and energies to move forward or to let yourself be mired in naval-gazing and false guilt. You are a person, and you have a life. Know that your words didn’t make a dent in the fundamentalists. They are as they were, except now they know something else about you – where you are coming from, if there was any doubt before.
- Expect that they will turn eyes of love and “understanding” (pity) on you. They will not say to themselves, “Oh, this person needs her space. I need to back off and wish her well.” No. They are taught to take advantage of weakness, and they may well interpret your sharing as a chink in your armor. Accept that this might have been unavoidable, because whatever the cost, clearing the air still might have been called for.
- Understand that the natural outcome of your letting off steam with someone you care about is to get closer with the person, but that is not what happens here. The fundamentalist has feelings and may anticipate a renewed closeness between the two of you because of your sharing. Your own human nature anticipates that, because that is the nature of healing. In normal communication, you share from your heart, and you get closer if you are met halfway by the other person.This doesn’t happen, though. You share from your heart, the other person anticipates from their heart, and the chasm still exists between you. The fundamentalist has an agenda for you and cannot just let you be, even though it may seem that they are. Ultimately, they wish you were in a different place than you are. Ultimately, they cannot approve of you.You may feel embarrassed that they now know something about you that you wish they didn’t. That’s life. Deal with it. It won’t be the last time something like this happens. Revisit Katie’s 4 questions, specifically, “Who would you be without the thought that ‘I wish so-and-so didn’t know this or that about me’?” (www.theWork.com) Who would you be? You’d feel relief and be able to mentally go on to other things. Work the 4 questions, if that’s what you need to be doing.
- If you have a sense of losing inner control when you speak out of frustration, know that that’s normal and not to be feared. Understand what this scene has been about. It has been reality asserting itself. It may have not been healthy for you to continue on in silence with feelings bottled up. Whatever the consequences, it was time to speak from your heart. Then continue on with what you were doing, with the project you were working on or whatever. Get your mind involved in something else. Of course apologize for unkind words, if that was what happened. Perhaps one lesson for you is that feelings don’t have to be kept inside until you explode. Find someone safe and wise to speak with. Write a letter and tear it up. Do what you have to do to maintain your equilibrium. Don’t beat up on yourself if you did explode, though. Notice instead that your “self” had enough presence and sufficient assertiveness to speak up, whatever form it came out in. That may be progress for you, and congratulations may be in order. There could be several perspectives from which to assess this scenario.
- Be alert to your former programming in confessing, of getting right with another person. This is not what this sharing has been about. You are not wrong that you need to get right. You have had a need to say to the fundamentalist, “This is where I am on my journey.” And to yourself, you say, “And I am on my journey and continue on my journey. The scene happened. Now it is time to move on.” You yearn for the other person to just “be human,” but instead you get more and more “Christ-likeness,” more and more humility and solicitation. They might ask if they offended you, confirming that they were oblivious to the content of what you said.
- I spoke in another section about the intimidation by silence. There is another point to be made here. You may feel intimidation by their surrender. You know that they are prostrate before their deity, perhaps because of sadness caused by you. That silent surrender can get to you if you let it. I’m not suggesting that you react or run from it. Katie (www.theWork.com) would ask, “Whose business are you in?” If their surrendered life is bothering you, you are in their business. You cannot do anything about whether they feel surrendered, whether they want to climb a tree, or whatever they want to feel or do with their lives. You are responsible for you and only for you. Stay in your business. Consider separating when you can. Neither one of you needs the ongoing stress. Wouldn’t it be nice to come home, sit on your couch, put your feet up, put the music on, have a cup of tea, with a big smile for yourself and feeling totally relaxed? Ahhhh.Radio talk show host Gary Null said, “I have never changed a closed mind. Never.” Your fundamentalist does not have the option to change his or her mind. Once they made the decision to surrender, their life was essentially laid out. They had a right to their decision but not to the results of their decision. Their religion is more important – has to be more important – to them than you are, though they may love you – or their idea of you – dearly.
If you feel unsteady after your outburst, try some reflections and affirmations:
- The fundamentalist in my life has surrendered her life to the religion. She no longer has any choice in how she reacts. She chooses slavery.
- I celebrate the emergence of my human spirit yearning to be free.
- I am not attracted to fundamentalism. I know why I left it. I am happier out of it. I have found life after fundamentalism. I would rather deal with reality than live in a fantasy-land.
- I know that to surrender to fundamentalism is to lose myself. I believe that losing myself is anti-human. I choose human life. I have one time on this earth, and I take responsibility for my own life.
- I experience release from the amorphous guilty feeling, and I am at peace.
- I was on a journey before I spoke from my heart with the fundamentalist, and I am still on my journey. So let me get on with it. Now where was I before this unanticipated sharing of my feelings?
- Understanding the control mechanisms of the crabs in the basket helps me to break the bonds of those mechanisms. I have friends in the fresh air outside the basket, and those friends hold me tight. The crabs clawing at me from the bottom of the basket no longer have power over me.
- I am strengthened by people who are gifted in being able to express their thoughts about the fallacies of fundamentalism. I have places to meet those people here, on-line, and in books.
- I am going to do routine things and know that as time passes, emotions will settle down within me.
What happens in the months after your self-assertion with your fundamentalist family member?
When you think about the coming months relating to the fundamentalist in your life, think in terms of watching the individual as you watch television, just letting her and her activities pass in front of your eyes, taking them in and letting go of them. If there is any human openness, of course you will be there…but you will not pin your hopes on openness, because the odds are against it.
So you live with a fundamentalist. So what? You have your own life and your own goings and comings. You have your places for reading and for thinking. Likewise, the fundamentalist has her thoughts and feelings. She has her own friends and activities. You interact on household matters and coexist peacefully enough. She is in her area of the house, doing her thing and conversing with her friends. You are in yours, doing your own reading and your own thinking.
You have found a way to co-exist, your boundaries are fine, and you have learned some good lessons from the experience. Neither the fundamentalist nor you can be to the other what you would choose to have in a relationship, but life has its sadness. Daily life goes on, and you live together peacefully until you don’t any longer.
How do you handle questions from a fundamentalist family member?
If you aren’t comfortable with your fundamentalists’ behavior/questions, let that be known. Making a calm, collected statement to that effect sounds simple but calls for courage on your part. I remember how hard it was to tell my parents (who used the dinner prayer to pray for others, including me) that I would join them at the table after grace. It had to be done.
- If you keep quiet and simmer inside, you are reacting to them, and they are taming you. You are better off being in charge of yourself and (depending on the circumstances) asserting yourself kindly as needed. Practice possible replies so that you are ready when the occasion arises: “I know you are solicitous about my welfare, but I am not comfortable with all these questions. I will tell you what you need to know or what I can share with you.”
- Questions can be a tool of religious bullies. A person who “knows they are right in their faith and knows that you are wrong” can come across as a religious bully, whether or not they mean to be one. You don’t have to answer anything you are not comfortable answering. You have a right to your privacy. Role-play ahead of time so that you are prepared for the questions and how you will handle them.This is what fate has brought you for now, and you can learn your lessons and become stronger before being able to move on. If you are experiencing cruelty, you wouldn’t be the first one. You will be stronger for learning how to recognize bullies and how to deal with bullies. Check out a book on bullies, including some for children, and make the connections.
- You may have the sense with fundamentalists of a curtain coming down inside you. There may be a physical sense of not wanting to be touched by them or to touch them. That this should happen between two otherwise well-meaning and decent people is a sad legacy of fundamentalism. Sometimes you conclude that you just don’t like the other person. My take on this is that our human spirits respond positively to life. A person who has surrendered their life to fundamentalism may just not “smell” good to our spirits. Our spirits may recoil from something unhealthy.
What if you have fundamentalist family members who aren’t so nice?
You may have a nasty relative, or a super irritating one, in your life. Take yourself out of the equation so that you are not drawn in to their drama. A friend used to say, “If some people would take the cotton out of their ears and put it in their mouths, they’d be better off.” Also, “you can’t get some people’s attention except with a stick.” Some situations are intolerable, and you have to make a move. Checking in with a counselor to review options can be helpful.
How do you deal with the stress relating to someone who lives a surrendered life?
Whatever you share does not appear to penetrate or result in any change in behavior. Nothing changes the surrendered attitude. You get the beatific smile no matter what. Accept that you’re living with a solicitous, unreachable individual, perhaps a walking bible, perhaps a zombie. Stay in your own business and carry on with your life. What else can you do?
Be careful not to revert to rigid, black-and-white thinking yourself. You know how it could play out: You are right, and they are wrong, i.e., the mirror image of fundamentalism. Find a compromise path. Give what you can. Accept what they can give. Don’t fear their weakness, tears, or apparent vulnerability. Weakness is part of the emotional and psychological control mechanism of fundamentalism. You don’t have to go back to that psychological state of surrender. You have a being. You have a mind and your own emotions. Look out for how you respond to their “weakness” and non-resistance. Obsessing about it, feeling guilty, or getting angry inside is not the way to go. Then, their weakness controls you. Ignore it.
If they want to passively wait on their invisible friend, so be it. You have your own business to attend to. You might also connect another thought with their surrender in your mind. For example, you might think of the fundamentalist as a beetle, one of the fundamentalist herd, all looking the same. You cannot fight weakness. That’s what they count on and use to try to drag you in. Have enough courage so that the quicksand cannot drag you down. Their surrender is their business, not yours.
Put your energies elsewhere, to something constructive. Don’t let the naval-gazers trap you in religious ooze. You want to fight? Fight against mental tyranny. Fight for justice, for the environment, for animal rights, for the freedom of the human spirit. There’s plenty to do in those areas to keep you more than occupied and to channel your excess energy. Until you reconcile yourself to the loss of an invisible friend who you may have come to feel is a fantasy, you won’t be able to be your own person.
Growing into a vision of what you want to become, of your hopes for your future, is a way through this time in your life. When you realize that you don’t want the easy out of the evangelicals and that you do want the open road before you, then the jealousy of them and longing for an invisible friend evaporate. A song returns to your heart and on you go. You have learned a little more of the good stuff you are made of. Star dust, right?
An uncomfortable undertone with fundamentalists is that they “know” they are right and that their god is on their side. They might have the appearance of humility… but the slippage over the border into arrogance can be an ever-present temptation. With that background belief, how can you possibly expect exposure of your vulnerability to be met with human intimacy and understanding? It’s not going to happen. It cannot happen. And that is a dilemma of trying to relate to fundamentalists. You want to share, and you cannot.
Where we want a kind word from a human heart, they impose their kindness agenda from their ideological world view. They say that their kindness is the love of Jesus shining through them, and we recoil from it. The shade comes down in us and we protect our selves against them. It’s like they have a mask of “God’s will” over their face and their emotions. If we try to touch them emotionally, we can’t.
My childhood pastor used to say of Roman Catholics, “Hate the system but love the person.” I find I can say the same thing from my experience with his brand of evangelicalism, too, and with all brands of fundamentalism, “Hate the system but love the people.” When I was young, I never thought I would be saying those words of the religion I grew up in and in which my dear parents were buried. But there it is.
Remind yourself of a common ulterior motive of many fundamentalists…and that may be to probe (consciously or unconsciously) for a weakness in you that would be an opening to share their faith and bring you back into the fold. As noted before, it is common practice to use a funeral service as a tool for evangelizing.
Remember the stories of “death bed conversions.” When faced with death, the sinner repents and finds God. Fundamentalists are patient, waiting for the weaknesses that will bring you down to repentance – weaknesses such as fear of death, feeling guilty, feeling depressed, concern for a wayward child, serious illness, financial distress, loss of a loved one, etc.
Fundamentalists know that their job is to continue to pray for you, and pray they do, while waiting for an opening. They are convinced that if you “really” had known Jesus, went to their church, had truly been converted… you never would have left the religion. Therefore, you must never have known Jesus or gone to the right church or been truly converted. To them, this is where the problem lies…not in whatever you say. They already have you pegged, so you might as well save your breath about why you are leaving fundamentalism should they inquire, which may be unlikely.
What if you just want to be left alone?
As time goes on, you may want nothing so much as to just be left alone by the fundamentalists in your life. They might not be able to do that. You have to be self-protective and compartmentalize your life. You are one way with them, one way when you are not with them. Can you think of any other options?
What if you don’t want to break up your marriage to a fundamentalist spouse?
Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape) felt that negotiation might be possible with a reasonably open-minded fundamentalist. However, he stated that he would have trouble being married to someone who was instilling the fear of hell in a child, because he considered that unethical and child abuse. He also feels that telling children fairy tales about heaven is a failure to prepare them to grieve, to be honest in the face of mystery. If his spouse had some degree of openness, of love and goodwill, he thought that some of the impasses could be negotiated. Can they? If you are in this position, you are a pioneer. You are in the middle of an experiment that may have an unpredictable ending.
What if you want to be a responsible son or daughter to your fundamentalist parents?
As a former fundamentalist, I had many years of relationship with my fundamentalist parents. To me, it was as if we loved each other but were on opposite sides of a chasm, trying to touch each other but unable to. We couldn’t talk about much that was meaningful, because our perspectives seemed mirror images of each other. The deeper part of our relationship was found in silence and in caring for each other as time passed. My parents, loving as they were, knew they were “right” about matters of faith. Their attitude was, “Believe anything you want; just remember you heard the truth here first.” They were generous in allowing me my own thoughts.
I’ll share below the stages of my relationship with my fundamentalist parents, after I left the church. I lived close to them and visited frequently. Then they moved to another state. First, I backed off, setting personal boundaries (as described before) to protect me from them and their prayers. On visits, I joined them at the table only after grace had been said. I shared little of my life to cut down on the judgmentalism.
Later, there was some bargaining: If I would attend their new church one time, they wouldn’t ask me again. I did, and they didn’t. I found it a dangerous church with a charismatic and humble-sounding pastor. He had the perfect personality to draw people in. The price of admission? Surrender of your self.
Once I wanted to share an article with my mother. She refused to read it unless I would read something from her church in return. I wouldn’t, and she didn’t, and that was probably the last time I tried to share anything in writing with her, or anything meaningful to me that was outside her fortress of belief and opinions. Would sharing have mattered anyway, with her closed mind? Nothing lost.
Over the decades, we found wordless ways of caring for and about each other. We spoke of everyday life, of things of interest to the other, of gardening, of their dog. “Nothing,” as one outsider cuttingly put it, “meaningful.” We stayed away from topics such as politics, religion, and life choices they would have judged questionable.
They were there for me in time of need, and I tried to be there for them, especially in the last years of my mother’s life. It wasn’t easy. I moved back with my mother after my father’s passing. There were adjustments on both sides. I give my mother a lot of credit for her adjustments, and I give me a lot credit for mine. We both were able to manage and to keep growing. She went her way, and I went mine. We spoke little but were relatively peaceful. I kept busy with my work.
What helped immensely was getting a little old dog, who turned out to be the center of warmth for us. The dog was funny, affectionate, smart, and had a mind of her own. She tamed the both of us and gave us many laughs together. We called her my mother’s “nurse,” because she acted like one. The dog lived until the day after my mother entered a nursing home.
Mom’s health was up and down, and she lived for another four years but never returned to the family home. After my mother entered what turned out to be a series of care-taking institutions, she was lonely and didn’t mingle easily. I visited her most days, for almost four years. That was a slog, especially for the first three and a half years. I experienced a drain on my life and energies in what seemed for so long a purposeless expenditure of energy. I did it because it was the right thing to do, and she would have cared for me were the tables turned.
By the last six months, though, she seemed to transform from a strident fundamentalist to a more flexible human being. Maybe it was senility setting in or some mini-strokes, but I like to think that it was life breaking through. It just about blew me away, as you might well imagine. Would I have put money on something like this happening? Not on your life. I was prepared for the long haul, slogging it through to the end, and then getting my time and energies back and feeling the freedom of no more family fundamentalists in my life. I daresay that slogging it through would have been the far more common outcome than seeing a long-term fundamentalist returning to life in any degree.
What are the chances of something like this happening for a reader’s fundamentalist parents? Maybe a little senility will set in to loosen things up a bit. I started to see almost a resurrection of her human spirit, and we began to laugh together here and there. She got nicer and happier. She lost some hard edges. Her interest in church, bible reading, and seeing other evangelicals seemed to dry up, and we frequently watched videos of beautiful classical/operatic music and a few movies. We must have watched “My Fair Lady” 20 times, or it seemed like that.
She spoke more from her heart. As death neared, she made it clear that she loved life on earth and wanted to live. I felt, at the end, that I had a mother… not necessarily that I could sit and talk with or who would have been interested in listening to me but nevertheless someone who seemed to be reconnecting with life and, yes, with me, too. I’ll share with you an amazing statement from her.
First, the context. Because she not meeting new friends at her assisted living place, I decided to start a discussion group for residents. We’d talk about a topic relating to their lives, such as, Who was your favorite teacher? If you didn’t live in the USA, what country might you like to live in? If you had to give away a million dollars and it couldn’t go to a religious organization or your family, what would you do with it? What are some tips for a person who just lost a spouse? What are your memories of winter? How did your family survive the Depression? What are your memories of World War II? How did you meet your spouse? What advice would you like to give to your grandchildren? How does society differ now from when you grew up? What do you wish you had known at age 16? Regarding the last question, several said, “Don’t get married young!”
Then after that, I’d read them some short human-interest stories from the literary magazine, The Sun. These stories are from readers, on announced subjects, and have to do with the drama of being human – with abuse, prejudice, loss, poverty, happiness. The residents liked those tales, and often the tales led to quiet sitting with one’s thoughts afterwards, or reflecting on the emotions of the writers, or commenting on this or that from their own lives.
My mother started out in the discussion group giving some version of her religious testimony every time, no matter the topic. She didn’t appear to be listening to anything. Then as months passed, she grew more quiet, until she mostly slept through the sessions.
One day, toward the end of her life, she astonished me with this statement: “I grew up in the discussion group.” ‘Mind you, to her church friends she was a kind, loving, and godly woman. She was to me, too, but being a black sheep daughter can elicit other characteristics, too, maybe out of fear and the need to control. It is in leaving fundamentalism that you get the number of a fundamentalist religion.
The wall between us was hard for me, but it was also hard for her. Because of fundamentalism, I lost a mother. She lost a daughter. We lost each other. I think it was her indomitable spirit, despite all those long years in the fundamentalist church, that made itself known again at the end of her life. I celebrate that spirit.
Don’t give up hope for your family.
So you never know. Be realistic and expect that your fundamentalists aren’t going to change. But sometimes life asserts itself, maybe with a boost from senility. It did with my mother and me, and no one would have guessed that that could happen with us, either. My mother came to want something better. She wanted earth’s beauty, earth’s adventures, human relationships, laughter, and beautiful music.
In the last months of her life, she never mentioned going to heaven and reconnecting with my father and brother. Several days before she died, hospice arranged for her to be transferred to a beautiful nursing home facility/grounds where she had long been on a waiting list. The night before she was to be transferred, I asked her, “Mom, if you knew that you had less than a week to live, would you still want to be transferred?” “Yes,” she said. “I want to see the beauty.” I felt within me, “You go, girl!” and so she went off the next day, to live out her few last days.
I remember the frustration of dealing with her before, when I wanted her to take the chance she had of going to that same nursing home. Instead, stubborn, she insisted on going to what turned out to be a dismal nursing home because the “second cousin of someone who cooks at her church knew someone who worked in the kitchen at the nursing home and said the people were nice,” or something like that. You get the picture.
I had learned not to fight with her. Looking back, though, if I had thought to visit the other place at the time and discovered how lovely it was, I could have painted a word picture, and she may well have agreed to go there when she was being discharged from the hospital. She would have had better care there and better food. She could have gotten a motorized wheelchair and tooted around the grounds. Being a bigger place, there would have been many more activities of interest, and a wider choice of residents for making friends.
What’s the lesson here? “There is always another way to look at something.” If you can’t get in the front door, try the back. I lacked imagination to approach her from a different direction, from something more in line with her self-interest. I just gave up in the face of her usual church-based opinion. I felt badly that she didn’t have a few years at the better facility – but what difference does it make now?
Dreams can inform and bring resolution.
I had two dreams of my father that were telling. The first was long ago, and he was a giant ostrich, blindly letting his beak fall to the ground. The little humans were running wildly around, trying to avoid that beak hitting them. Even today, if I hear the word, “God,” a Pavlovian image of my father springs to mind. The second dream was after my father died. I was standing talking to my mother in the backyard. Over her shoulder, I could see my father – only he was youthful, in his 20s, before he got “born again.” He was smiling at me, and I felt his acceptance, as I was. That dream was a sign to me of personal integration, that I have accepted and love myself and that in my inner self, things are ok between my father and myself, that the ostrich father and the fearful god have been transcended in love, and I have moved on.
Do I think the dream was my father actually visiting me? No, but who knows? Does it matter? The spirit and the love are there. I don’t need to know more. I can be thankful for the call to something better than that my parents followed and still recognize that for myself, that call to something better led to a different journey than theirs, that I am finding the something better in myself and in this world, rather than the next. I am learning to stop and pay attention when my emotions tell me that something is a bit out of kilter. This life is my classroom.
Take your time before making a move.
You might be in an evangelical marriage, with children, while going through your inner journey from fundamentalism. It takes courage and strength to move on in that setting. Take your time with your moves. You don’t have a train to catch. Get input from professionals, maybe a marriage counselor or a child psychologist. Maybe your spouse has some openness, and you can find livable compromises. The better approach in a marriage is to start talking early. It was a joint decision to get married. Either work on that commitment or make a mutual decision to separate.
That may not work if you are separating because of the religion. Your spouse can’t give up her religion, though that is what it might take. See a secular counselor first, and then consider bringing the spouse in. I don’t know of anyone who has done this, so if you have, please give some feedback. If children are involved, you can be an example of life after fundamentalism. Involve them in your life and growth – and you in theirs – as much as they will let you. Laugh with them, if they let you.
Maybe if you get involved in a Unitarian group, you can introduce them to kids their own age. I’ll repeat something I said before, that what I have seen of youngsters growing up in the local Unitarian church is quite amazing. I got teary during a youth service, when I compare who they are as teenagers with what I was at their age…. how they can think for themselves, how they own their own lives, how admirable their value systems are, how they are involved in activities to learn about and contribute to bettering the world, and how they relate to adults. I applaud them in my heart. They have no idea how lucky they are.
“This situation is the one you need for your growth.”
Relating with fundamentalists can take strength and grace on both sides. For you, though you might easily choose to be elsewhere, imagine that this situation is exactly the one you need for your growth. With such an attitude, you can be thankful for it and look forward to the lessons and adventures it will bring. If you keep growing on the path that seems right to you and that seem best for your family, in time things will shift, and a decision of what to do will become evident in its own time.
Let’s take a break and continue this on another page.