Reinvention

House of cardsPersonal change and growth generally happens slowly. One’s political beliefs may shift over one’s lifetime, or a commitment to health and fitness may slowly be fostered. But generally these changes happen over a length of time, and in relative isolation from other changes.

Every once in a while, however, some belief that is fundamental to your worldview gets torn away. Like pulling out the bottom card in a house of cards, the rest comes tumbling down and must be rebuilt. Suddenly, change is thrust upon you, and you must deal with it. It’s at times like these that life gives you a reset button. All of a sudden, you have a fresh start to define who you are. You have a new chance to redefine yourself and cast yourself in a new light.

The Cost of Change

Reset buttonI’ve been doing a lot of redefining lately. In a few short years, I’ve gone from conservative, fundamentalist Christian to socialist, skeptical atheist. I’ve found no easy way to make that jump; it’s been a tedious process from start to finish. On top of my core beliefs about how the universe operates (divine intention or orderly chaos?), I’ve been required to rethink my secondary beliefs about politics, social justice issues, ethics, and more. There’s no way to change one’s viewpoint about all these issues and still remain the same person. I’ve discovered that the hard way. But at the same time, I believe that my reinvention was a shift in the right direction. I believe I’m a better person than I was before it happened.

I’ve gone through a lot of friends. I understand that this likely happens to everyone around this point in life: friends move away to different schools, they get jobs in different cities or countries, they go off and get married and have several thousand children (or so it seems from their frequent Facebook updates!). It’s inevitable, but it still saddens me to think of the friends with which I’ve lost contact. Still, I can’t help but believe that some of my friends have slowly distanced themselves from me due to my own shift in beliefs and opinions. I don’t really blame them—it’s hard to stay friends with someone who does a complete 180 on everything they formerly believed. It’s hard to stick around with a person who used to make anti-feminist remarks and now considers himself a feminist. But it’s still difficult to lose essentially one’s entire social circle and have to build it back up again. Sometimes the price of reinvention is steep.

 

Personality changesOne thing I initially thought would stay the same was my personality. After I lost my faith, I tried to reassure my friends (and myself!) that I was still the same person. My beliefs about God were different, sure, but I still had the same interests, the same (bad) jokes, the same attitude toward life. And that was true for a while. But I’ve since discovered that one cannot rebuild one’s life from the ground up and keep the same personality. I don’t think it can be done. That said, I think the change has been for the better. While my dry sense of humour has remained, my sarcastic remarks about my friends have decreased dramatically. My lack of a connection with some divine being that is always there to listen to me has only made me value my family and friends more. My outlook on life is more positive, I’m more open to new experiences, and as I continue to rebuild my identity, my confidence grows. In general, I think I’m a nicer, kinder person. I’m still a work in progress, of course, but I’m trying to keep up the momentum, to continue becoming a better person. But that comes at a cost—you must let go of security and self-assurance, because doing a wholesale reinvention of yourself leaves you with no stable self to hold onto in the interim. You learn to keep your mouth shut more often, because you no longer trust the words coming out of it. The words you’re saying are a product of your old self, and thus they may not be true! Everything must be spoken with an implied asterisk beside it: “Until further reflection and research is done on this issue, the views currently expressed are tentative and may be revoked at any time.” Such a proviso may be refreshing at times, but it does little to help with confidence in one’s own beliefs.

In a State of Flux

The higher cost of reinvention, though, is discarding one’s personal history. The self is made up of one’s past experiences and actions, so to redefine oneself is to throw that all away. Obviously, this can’t be done in entirety; my past is baggage I will always carry with me, no matter what. But a wedge needs to be placed in between me and my past, to divorce me from my former identity. At times it can be painful, but generally the feeling is something almost surreal, an out-of-self experience that calls me to acknowledge that yes, that was me, but it is not me now, but it is still a part of me, but it is no longer me. These moments happen to everyone sometimes, but in a process of complete overhaul, the feeling can be overwhelming. It is difficult to convince others that my past beliefs are no longer part of me, that who I was is no longer who I am, in a very real and complete sense. The request to “Tell me about yourself” is a nightmare. If I knew, I’d tell you, but the question of who am I? is perplexing enough even in my most relaxed and introspective state. When such a request is made, I’m left repeating the bare essentials: name, age, university major, basic interests. To go any deeper would require an explanation too long and complex to recite. And since I’m not entirely clear on it anyway, the questions about my own self get tricky. I know who I was, and I know roughly in what direction I am headed, but who am I now, here, today? Better just to deflect the question with a joke and move onto less troubled waters.

Caution: Work in progressI admire the people who have a strong sense of who they are. When someone can say, “I’m a vegetarian” or “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a radical communist” or “I’m an NFL linebacker”, it’s simple. Sure, they’re certainly more complex than the three- or four-word phrase they just uttered, but there’s at least some identity for them on which to anchor. During a process of reinvention, any such phrases are disingenuous. At best, when speaking truthfully, one can say, “At the present time, I think I am a ________”. Or perhaps “I used to be a ________, but now I’m not so sure.” So I envy those people who can actually stamp their foot down and declare who they are. I wish I could do that. I hope that one day I will be able to. But for now, I’m in a state of transition. A work in progress. Under construction. And when I emerge from my cocoon of reinvention, perhaps I’ll be able to say with confidence, “I’m a decent human being.” But for now…I’m getting there.

4 responses to “Reinvention”

Pink lady

Thanks for this post Jeff. I’ve been reading some of your stuff for a couple weeks now and feel I could be headed the same direction as you. Your blog has helped as I come from the same background, beliefs and attitudes (and sometimes experiences) as you. This particular post was an interesting read because as I am reconsidering my worldview, I keep telling the ones I love that “I’m still me” and I’m glad to hear that even though you have changed, maybe more than you anticipated, that you have come this far, feeling that you have become a better person. That’s what I hope for.

Jeff

Hi Pink Lady,

I’m glad to hear that my blog has been helpful! It’s always nice to know that someone actually reads these things 🙂

Taking the time to question your own beliefs and worldview is a challenging process, but as far as I’m concerned, it is always worth it. You will either come out with better beliefs, or with better evidence that you already had the right beliefs. And to be sure, the emotional turmoil gets much better once you finally come to a conclusion after the whole process of doubt and questioning. I promise!

At any rate, I wish you all the best in your own process of reconsidering your worldview. I definitely know it’s not easy, but it’s rewarding all the same in its own way. If you have any questions, feel free to leave another comment, or email me! I’d be happy to talk about it further.

Jeff

Pink lady

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for replying and for the encouragement 🙂 I just wondered if you’d tackle something for me. Something I thought of recently is the idea that Christianity seems to flourish when it’s under attack and I mean radical Christianity. I mean, we have a lot of “Christians” in Canada but I’m sure a lot of them wouldn’t be willing to meet for church if it meant they could die if they were discovered, whereas, I’ve heard accounts of Christians in China who are punished if they are found out, and yet Christianity spreads. Of course, this is just hearsay, but I haven’t the slightest clue of how to check out these claims. If they’re not true then I guess I don’t have a question but if they are true, I want to know why that is. If Christianity is not true, why doesn’t it die out when people are getting killed for thinking it is? Are people just that crazy that they’ll stick to their guns no matter what? And then other people find their martyrdom inspiring so they decided Christianity must be something worth dying for and follow it themselves? And why is it a religion that is so persecuted? Or maybe it doesn’t receive any more persecution than any other religion but since I’ve been brought up in it, it just seems that way because I’ve heard a biased view my whole life?
It’s just something that’s bothered me and I’d appreciate your insights 🙂

Jeff

Hmm, well that’s an interesting question. I’m not really sure how much persecution of Christians is really going on in China—certainly under Mao Zedong, things were pretty grim, but I get the sense at any rate that it’s not so bad today. Unfortunately, a lot of stories get passed around in Christian circles far beyond their expiry date, so it’s hard to know how true the stories are. But I’m not really sure what it’s like in China as far as religious persecution is concerned.

At any rate, your broader question is, why does Christianity spread under persecution? And that’s a good question. I don’t think it’s Christianity that receives most of the persecution—far from it, in fact! (Let’s keep in mind that, especially in the West, Christianity was itself doing most of the persecuting of other groups. At various times, Protestants were persecuted by Catholics and vice versa, and the Quakers and other Anabaptists fled Europe to avoid religious persecution from other Christians. Christian missionary work has also often been very aggressive in trying to destroy indigenous religious beliefs to replace them with their own.) And I don’t think Christianity is more likely to spread under persecution than other religions, though it sort of depends on the actual content of the religion to some extent. Religions with strong elements of evangelism and conversion are more likely to be spread in general.

So why does religion spread under persecution? I think there are several reasons. For one thing, it weeds out the shallow believers. Those who don’t believe strongly just give it up, so all that are left are the zealots, the strongest believers. And when these leftover people believe that they are being persecuted, they then redouble their efforts to spread it, because the best way to repel the “attack” is to gain more of an “army”. They, of course, find other people who are willing to believe it strongly (because you’d be crazy to buy into a persecuted religion otherwise), and they can also paint the religion in a different light, as something that is so true it must be “threatening” to the powers that be. This can strangely make it more attractive to some people. Finally, I think religious persecution can pick up converts from people who are dissatisfied with the “system” as a whole. Once a religion is persecuted, it becomes counter-cultural and subversive, so people who are dissatisfied with the government or the culture for other reasons can pick up the religion as another way to subvert the current system. For instance, people who are already marginalized for issues of race or gender can find their home in a group of people who are also facing marginalization. And let’s face it: governments who are persecuting religious groups are likely to also be persecuting other minority groups. So there’s plenty of dissatisfaction to go around.

I think those are at least some of the factors that can lead religious groups to spread even under persecution. It’s not crazy to stick to what you believe, even under pressure. But it does seem that religion might need a certain sense of competition or threat in order to keep its followers committed. Religion in Europe and North America has faced little threat, and it seems to be slowly fizzling out as a result. It’s only in the US that there has been a strong rhetoric of persecution (which is laughable, really, considering the majority support Christianity has), and you can see the results that this rhetoric has achieved. Every hint of progress is an attack by “secularism” on Christianity. However baseless this accusation might be, it seems to work to keep people committed to their religion.

Anyway, sorry for the long reply, but hopefully there’s something in there that answers your question 🙂

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