Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leaving the Christadelphians

Growing up as a Christadelphian can feel normal enough. We may have been seen as a bit "different" at school or university, but going to church is still generally respected and people rarely ask too many questions about it. That, too, is kind of still normal enough. It was sometimes difficult coming up with interesting answers to, "So what did you do on the weekend?", but we survived. The camps were fun (well, the free time was anyway). We had large organised events for young people, and regular opportunities to meet new people and have a good chat over supper.

For the most part, this was our life. But there was something else. Life as a Christadelphian was really all about one thing, and one thing only. Getting into the kingdom. That's all that mattered, and the Christadelphian community had created a framework and ecosystem spanning almost every part of life, all geared towards that goal. From Sunday School, to youth group events, to baptism instruction, to ecclesial duties, to outings, to teaching, to getting married, to preaching, and even to funerals, they had it all covered. Everything we needed in order to keep us on the straight and narrow path was catered for, complete with both positive and negative feedback mechanisms to encourage and enforce certain patterns of behaviour. There was also sometimes that positive community spirit of helping each other along the often difficult path, that "narrow way that leads to life". We were the lucky ones to have been born into the one true religion. Christadelphian life wasn't easy, but God would surely reward our struggles by granting us eternal life when Jesus returned.

And it almost made sense. Almost.

For some of us, something tipped us off that all might not be as it seemed, and one by one the cracks started to show. Reality started to trickle in, slowly at first, but gradually more and more until eventually the illusion was shattered, never to return.

At first it was terrifying. We tried to claw our way back but every step pulled us further away. We became confused and dizzy. What was happening? It was like slowly waking from a dream. The dream had become a nightmare, but all of a sudden it started fading, and then it was gone. As the daylight came pouring into our squinting eyes, it slowly dawned on us. We were outside the "matrix". We saw the world as it really was. It was huge, and scary, but it was also beautiful. We may have lost our faith, but we had gained a new perspective. A wider perspective. A far more inclusive perspective.

We suddenly saw our former selves the way outsiders saw us before. Everything we previously thought was "normal", wasn't. Our neighbours and others at work were just regular people. They lived differently (or rather, we did), but they were a lot like us too. They didn't cut us off because we thought differently. Rather, many of them accepted us for who we were, despite our differences. They saw something that we had been completely blinded to. Our humanity.

If you're like me you might remember looking back at those earlier times, and thinking of all the other people still stuck in the Christadelphian delusion. That narrow, distorted view of reality. Many of us wanted to run back and scream out to them about what we had discovered, and show them how much bigger and more beautiful the real world really is. We wanted to tell them about the wonders of science and about the freedom we now enjoyed, but when we tried to talk to them we found that they rejected the real world because it didn't offer a kingdom and eternal subservience to a powerful dictator. This response may have confused us, but we ignored it and pressed on.

We tried to point out the same flaws and cracks we had discovered, only to find that they looked the other way and refused to listen. Instead of embracing the truth they became more determined to reinforce the distortion and lies. They just wanted to go on believing what they had been taught, and they accused us of simply lacking faith, almost as if they were aware of the illusion, but afraid to look beyond it. They accused us of just wanting to leave, or of giving up due to some bad experience, probably because they could not bring themselves to accept that we might have actually reasoned our way out. The way they spoke to us was always condescending and patronising. They expressed pity, unaware that we had the greater perspective. Some even asked us to just go back to pretending their contrived fantasy world was real, but we couldn't do it even if we wanted to. Once the illusion was broken, there was no putting it back.

No longer "separate from the world", we started to realise our deeper place within it. It felt like starting life over again, but now in a completely foreign universe. What should we tell people? How do we identify ourselves now? Would we vote? How do we make new friends? What do we even want to do with our lives now?

The questions were daunting, and we felt disoriented and sometimes completely lost. This was, of course, completely expected and very "normal" for someone who had experienced what we had been through. But we didn't know what "normal" meant any more. We were playing catch up. After being moulded and shaped into a square peg for our entire life, we had discovered that the real world was round.

Then something else happened. The weekend came along and after enjoying the day on Saturday, we woke up Sunday morning and slowly realised that we didn't have to be anywhere. We didn't have to do anything, impress anyone, suffer through any monotonous talks that went on forever, pretend to have listened afterwards, nothing. Right then, at that very moment, we realised that we would be just fine. Life, from now on, was going to be good.

There is still much to figure out, but we have time. For now the most important thing is to reconnect with who we really are. To rekindle our hobbies and interests, and remember all the things that made us excited to be alive. We are seeing the world with new eyes and that's pretty awesome, right?

Remember all those people who tried to tell you "your life is not your own"? Bullshit! Not only is our life truly ours, but it matters to us now more than it ever did. We've spent long enough in slavery, singing to what we imagined was the invisible fairy in the sky. Now it's time to start living life on our own terms.

But sometimes we forget the enormity of what we have been through. We may feel like we failed, or like we are bad children. We may have disappointed our families, and our friends. Sometimes life feels empty and meaningless, because we used to think our purpose was to serve the invisible sky fairy forever, and now we are not sure there ever was such a thing. The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike, after all. Who should we serve now? What is the meaning of it all?

I cannot answer those questions for you but maybe I can point you in the right direction. We've spent so long taking orders from other people about how to live, that we never stopped to listen to our own inner voice. We don't need to serve anyone, or at least not some imaginary ghost no one has ever seen. No one else can tell us what we should find meaningful. The only meaning that actually matters is what we create or derive from our own lives. Our purpose can be anything we want it to be, and we're not limited to a single one. Imagine you have a huge box of lego. Meaning comes from what you create. Purpose comes from why you created it. As a child you didn't need anyone to tell you what you enjoyed or why you enjoyed it. And you don't need anyone to tell you that now.

Take the time to rediscover yourself. Find out what you're interested in, and what really lights you up inside. You will start to become aware of things you really care about. Those are the things that give your life meaning and purpose. For some it may be volunteering or charity work. For others it may be art, or science, or hobbies, or nature, or spending time with close friends, or making a difference to the lives of others, or all of those things plus more. Last year I wrote a series of articles on finding meaning without God. You may find those helpful too.

It can sometimes feel like we have lost so much, but remember that we have gained a lot too. You can't put a price on freedom, especially freedom of thought. It can help to talk to other ex-Christadelphians about your journey, and support each other through the difficult times. We may not have anyone to pray to, but we do have plenty of people we can chat to who will actually talk back. And they can understand us and provide real, tangible support. And unlike with the invisible fairy we won't be left wondering whether our calls were answered. Many of us have walked a similar path, and we will be there for you.

It can feel like our lives were wasted, and to some extent we did do a lot of pointless things. But we learned from it, and everything we went through has helped to shape who we are now, for better or worse. Like all events in life it is important to make peace with the past, learn from it, accept that it happened and how it shaped you, but don't dwell on it for too long. There's still a life full of possibility waiting for you to live it. There are other ex-Christadelphians out there who could benefit from your wisdom and experience, or even just from the knowledge that they are not alone. It was not all in vain.

The world is looking forward to meeting the new you. Show them who you are and what you're made of. For all you've come through, you're still standing. Embrace your new life. Ponder the sad times, heal and reflect during the quiet times, get excited, laugh, cry, love, and enjoy everything it means to be fully human. Remember, a good life must be created, and your meaning and purpose come from within.

And next time you hit a low point, when you feel like you've been dealt a harsh blow, or that you've suffered unjustly, or that life has been unkind, just remember this:

We made it out!

We did it! We escaped the mental prison. We beat the odds. We are not the lost sheep.

We are survivors.