What We Don’t Have to Answer

Tonight I (Cami) am sitting in my friend’s apartment. She’s away on a trip; I’m hanging out with her cats. This pal of mine (let’s call her Sherri) is visiting her family in another state—a family that has been much grieved by Sherri’s leaving the Christian faith. Every summer and almost every Christmas Sherri goes back to see the people who love her, but who are terrified for her soul now that she’s rejected the doctrine. And on each visit, both Sherri and her loved ones spend a lot of time trying to be understood by one another. She’s spent many hours over the years listening to how worried they are about her and fielding the emotional fallout of making the decision of not believing something anymore.

Susan has talked a lot about how, as an Orthodox Jew, the rules were primary for her. In many versions of the Christian faith, however, one’s thoughts and beliefs are the crucial focus, and following moral guidelines is meant to be an act of obedience, evidence that a person’s faith is real and deep. If you watched Sherri visiting her family, you wouldn’t see that she was any different from her mom, dad, and siblings. And this is because you can’t see inside of someone’s head. Sherri doesn’t smoke; she’s not a nudist or a drug dealer. She is a lesbian, but since she’s single, her parents aren’t confronted with what to do in a practical way with Sherri’s sexual orientation. Nonetheless, every time Sherri visits, she senses the terrible disappointment of her family—because of what she no longer thinks.

In my experience, one of the highest psychological tasks one can master is to healthily live with the disappointment of others. The women of Beyond Belief live with knowing that those who used to love them (and those who still do, in many cases) are disappointed, afraid, and angry about their choices to leave communities/faiths/religions. And many of them live with this very gracefully.

This week in the news, we’re watching a public woman leave a very secretive religion. Actress Leah Remini (from the sitcom King of Queens) has walked away from Scientology and is facing grave disappointment from her former friends, no doubt. We don’t get to know how she’s handling it (though we would dearly love to hear from her if she’s out there looking for a supportive community who “gets it”), but if she’s anything like my friend Sherri (and like me and many of you), bearing the disappointment of others is sad. And hard. And irritating. And… and… and….

One thing I’ve done when I encounter old friends who want to bring me back into the fold of fundamentalism, is to breathe into my not-knowing—the glorious freedom not to have answers, for myself or for others. None of us—Sherri, Leah, me, you—has to answer the question, “Why did you go.” We don’t have to know or articulate the anything we’re not inclined to.

What do you do when you encounter family and friends who are invested in convincing you of something? What do you breathe into? What keeps you grounded?

To quote a common mindfulness meditation: May all beings be at peace. May all be freed from their suffering. And to Sherri and Leah: You are not alone.

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2 thoughts on “What We Don’t Have to Answer

  1. One of the most difficult facets of leaving the church in which my family was immersed was knowing that my mother believed that my leaving the fold meant that she had failed as a mother. After a few tries to explain why I no longer believed as I once did I realized that she was simply unable to comprehend that someone could no longer believe “THE TRUTH.” I could no longer talk with her about the things that meant the most to me as most of them involved reminders that I was no longer a believer. And then there was her conviction that I would be in “the Lake of Fire” come Judgement Day. What an awful thing for a mother to believe!

  2. Another great post. Jim, I can understand your difficulty. You don’t want your mother to suffer the feelings of failure yet you need to do what’s right for you. It’s not easy.

    Cami, I really like this statement:
    “In my experience, one of the highest psychological tasks one can master is to healthily live with the disappointment of others.” It’s like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” thing. No matter what you do there is someone who disapproves. This can be so difficult to process when we’re wired to please. I disappointed a different group of people both when I joined and when I left and because of that I felt like a self-centered, ungrateful bitch, raised by wolves, incapable of acknowledging the feelings of others.

    Living an authentic life is not easy.

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