Recovering from Devotion

أَنِ اغْدُوا عَلَىٰ حَرْثِكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ صَارِمِينَ

“Go early and rush to your orchards and crops if you wish to gather all their harvest and plentiful fruits.” -al-Qalam 68:22

“She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.” –Proverbs 31:13-15

Almost three years ago, the wonderful Jennifer Mathieu gave me the honor of her time for an interview. When her book Devoted was released, I was a newly agnostic apostate. I distrusted dogma of any kind. Anyone who claimed to have answers and solutions was automatically someone who I thought would hurt me. I have still not recovered from the shock and grief and inability to function that indicate a traumatic childhood. Jennifer took researched and got to know some people who grew up in the same world I did, and delicately told a story about what it would be like to escape.

I want to look back on what I’ve learned in the years since I’ve been out in the world, experiencing its injustices for myself.

Anyone who has been educating themselves on the United States drug criminalization¹ is likely familiar with the cocaine rat testing of the 1970s. As told in the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, lab rats were presented with two options: regular water or coke-laced water. The rats inevitably chose the coke-laced water until they overdosed. However, the rats were alone, with nothing else to do. So they redid the tests with things that would give the rats a good quality of life – plenty of space to run and play, companions, and toys. When the rats had a larger cage, they were content. These experiments have helped to enlighten us on the true nature of addiction. The rats in the fancier cage chose not to use the drugs because they didn’t need them to cope with existence.

(Okay, we haven’t gotten far enough into neuroscience to read minds yet, and we aren’t able to conclude whether rodents get existential. I digress.)

I always wondered, aren’t the rats just technically being pampered into accepting their imprisonment? As long as they’re fed and entertained, they just accept the cage and don’t need intoxication, right?

I’m skeptical. Because the more I understand what I once saw as the “outside world,” the more I see through the common tactics of people who lust after power. The same tricks I saw religious leaders and so-called patriarchs pull to gain mass followings are the same ones I’m seeing in politicians now. Yet for some reason I’m expected to believe that voting makes a difference, when I know exactly how this system works. I’ve seen it before. It’s just on a bigger scale.

Even if they’re trying to pacify me with entertainment and consumerism, I can still see the bars of the cage. I know I still can’t leave. I know I’m just a rat in a lab. I know my life is expendable.

I’m just a cog in the machine.

Now that we’ve set up some context, I can begin. The interview was published on the same day that Devoted was released, on June 2, 2015. I opened it by saying that I felt like living with my parents was playing an unwinnable game.

I still feel like I’m playing an unwinnable game. Every day I feel like I owe people money that I don’t have, and have no way of getting. The cost of living is so ridiculously high, that it’s hard to have the appetite for another meal of dollar store food. I’m ready for a revolution, because I can rattle the bars of this cage, and I refuse to be pacified.

Several therapists have suggested that I try to think more positively, and that’s been proven to just be bad science.² Jennifer and I discussed how large families like mine often “exuded happiness,” as she aptly put it, and how it was required that we smile at all times. I forced happiness and dissociation for years, tightening my grip on my Christianity hardest in my early adulthood, trying to prove to myself that I could believe in this thing that had failed me intellectually and spiritually.

Cages, coping, dissociation, devotion. My life as a stay-at-home daughter was a misery I could not accept as real. The days passed in blurs of exhaustion, herding children, working, trying to be a good student. I believed that I had to be happy, and I believed that this was what I wanted out of life, because there was no other way to be. Any other lifestyle – hindering god’s plan for your family with birth control, not being married, or being anything but cishet – was a sin to even entertain idle thoughts about.

Once while I was listening to the car radio, I heard a preacher giving a sermon about worship. He said that when it seems like something is too big to handle, we should just exalt god until we realize how small our problems are compared to him.

Terrible advice, I know now. Of course belittling your own emotions and blaming yourself for feeling them, and then distracting yourself with worshiping a deity so narcissistic he wants you to see only him and nothing else, is like a malignant tumor in the brain. It is well documented that abusers use gaslighting to make their victims believe that everything is fine, and they are happy, even if that happiness must be conjured from empty reserves of emotional energy.

But at the time, I took that advice to heart, and I know every person who is still trapped in that world does the same. I used to listen to a song that opened with the lines, “Take the biggest thing that’s got you down, and stand it up right next to god. Anyone can see who’s bigger now.”

As long as I, and my problems, could be made to seem small and insignificant compared to an ethereal presence of infinite proportions, I could survive.

I was devoted, like Rachel is in the book. I believed that the source of my strength was being pleasing to God, and that meant immersing myself in theology and scripture, a personal study in addition to my other duties. My intentions were pure. I wanted to love god with all my heart. I prayed constantly, always controlling my wandering thoughts.

Recovering from that level of devotion is a terrifying thing.

It is like being a frog, one who was nearly boiled alive when trusting a pot that started out as cold water, learning to swim in safe water again. What habits, rituals, controlled thinking, and relationship navigational skills still linger from the only upbringing I ever knew? How can I trust any level of dedication, interest, focus, or curiosity after being so hurt by belief?

In exploring other religions and having many mind-elevating experiences over the past few years, I have found no creed that doesn’t have the same fundamental flaws as all the others. Manifestation is just supplication with another name. The same can be said for positive thinking and delighting in the lord. Pop music is scripture, and scripture is contradictory. I find the patterns of humanity dizzying – we long for free will, yet we think someone or something is going to save us from that which we cannot control.

I recognize that recent scientific findings support rituals like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and other forms of intuition-affirming self-care. However, I cannot help but observe the prevalence of the placebo effect alongside confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Humans have brains that have evolved to assume that we are right, that what we believe matters, and we’ll filter information to confirm our beliefs, and we’ll think that we have a better understanding of things than others.

Nevertheless, I cannot deny what I have observed of the cosmic, the paranormal, and the psychic. So I tread very lightly and carefully, keeping my eyes wide open, knowing that my devotion is sacred yet free. The demons I was warned about are more vile than what lie in the Christian imagination, and the god I was supposed to love was a cruel jailer.

I know a lot of people who have abandoned faith completely. There are also many who have found another religion to devote themselves to. Ironically, the path of forsaking worship or ritual is an untrodden one.

It feels hypocritical of me to light candles and draw quarters on each full moon and new moon, and I doubt that it has any real influence that pervades reality. The calm I sense and the results I record are far too subjective, and the possible explanations too bizarre for isolated and consistent lab tests. I doubt myself doubly because I called myself a hypocrite when I was a Christian trying to go through endless dissonance to defend my faith, too.

Relating to the divine doesn’t have to be about minimizing my own experience, though. It can be about expression – laments and dreams and happiness deserve time set aside to be reflected upon. Gratitude and complexity. Grief and nihilism. Nightmares and visions. If it takes marking my calendar and lighting some incense to honor my human experience, limited as it might be, then I will endure the pain and ecstasy of this life.

There should be no suffering for the sake of devotion. Rather, to be alive is itself to suffer. We each choose every day whether we’ll close our eyes to reality, or if we’d rather be devoted than aware.

In my recovery, I honor my own experience instead of living in denial and suppression of it.

¹Recommended reading on the subject: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

²Just a few sources for this include Newsweek, Forbes, and Ideapod.