This is the story of a girl who greatly loved a man she never knew.
I was raised within a sheltered, strict religious environment and attended a Christian school from the time I was six until I was 14. Though I loved my teachers (at least most of them) and adored my friends, I learned the power of rules and actions.
It was here, within cement walls of glossy white and upon floors of tarnished gray carpet, that I was taught my worth. Chapel was every Thursday; we sang fun, rhythmic hymns and rehearsed Bible verses. Our pastor tried to preach the weekly lesson in an enjoyable way, but the 45 minutes ticked by slowly.
From an early age, there was much about my religion that never felt right to me. To begin, I wasn’t taught self-love except for the love I should feel for myself, because someone else lived inside my body (as in, my body was a church that housed the “Holy Spirit”).
My body was not mine; it was God’s.
I felt separate from my body and did not know how to claim or live comfortably inside it. I was never my own person, but instead belonged to someone else. I didn’t feed it properly to make myself feel well. I didn’t exercise for my own health. I did it simply because I was sinning if I didn’t.
In fact, I was encouraged to practice self-denial and restrictions from many elements of life I didn’t fully understand. The preachers said that humans were inherently sinful. I hated my body for feeling things that God professed to be sinful—anger or resentment towards my parents, jealousy or loathing towards a peer, desire for a boy.
In addition, as a Christian woman, my virginity was very much a part of my value and identity. Should I give it away (what was “it” after all?), my worth decreased. Who would want me? And like all sins, I’d be giving in to the devil’s bait. My feelings of desire were bad and wrong. In fact, they were evil urges wishing to lead me astray. I was filled with shame when sexuality, indignation, or neediness rammed their eager sensations through me. I felt guilty asking for help or attention. I felt I ought to be punished and rejected, and I certainly ought to reject myself in order to fulfill others’ desires. I could never speak back to someone who was rude or cruel or oppressive to me. I could never touch a boy or be touched. God was watching.
The concept of sin was another thing that greatly damaged me. I didn’t grow up learning to trust my own intuition or to love my own spirit; I grew up afraid of who I was. In fact, the idea that I was inferior (especially as a woman) was one of the main elements of the religion—that all humans were subordinate to a superior being, and regardless of what we did, we were still permanently flawed.
I felt angry and frustrated with myself that no matter how hard I tried, nothing I could do, or be, would ever be enough. No one told me I was good as I was. No one said I was enough. There was always something that could be improved. I wanted to be good. I wanted to make God happy and pleased, but I knew he would be my judge in the end, and that I should consider myself lucky if I was forgiven and allowed into heaven.
Instead of seeing mistakes and struggles as helpful lessons that could guide us, I was taught that they were my downfall; I learned to harbor and nourish regret and self-loathing instead of bestowing forgiveness and love upon a girl who was painfully striving to do the right things. As I was supposedly nothing without God’s help and was encouraged to be entirely dependent on someone else, I never learned to depend on myself. I was too afraid to have my own opinions if they contradicted his, so I grew afraid of my own thoughts. This caused me to become terrified of my thoughts and actions, because they would either save or condemn me.
Since I was always being watched and judged, in turn, I became afraid of myself and obsessed with perfectionism. So I learned to always watch and judge myself; I wanted to catch the evil before it festered. When I was finally able to recognize that one cannot control thoughts or emotions, it all seemed so ridiculous that I should be evaluated by them.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I wasn’t loved unconditionally. Instead of being encouraged to question and formulate my own belief system, I was told I had to follow his, and that if I did something he didn’t approve of, I was going to be punished. My actions became fear-based and not heart-based. My worth was decided by someone else, and it could be lost at any moment. He wasn’t to blame for it, either—only I was. I decided my worth by deciding how I acted, and my actions were only acceptable if they were satisfactory to him. Therefore, I didn’t love or accept myself. How could I? I was a sinful creature that needed someone else’s acceptance, love, and approval in order to be worthy and “good.”
Another component of Christianity that didn’t resound with who I was, was the constant judgment of others unlike myself (i.e., non-Christians, homosexuals, and—as a female—the women who slept with men before marriage). I was told, ironically, that I was somehow superior to these people simply because I was Christian. I was encouraged not to spend time with them, listen to them, or accept them as equals. There was no unconditional love or acceptance. And although Jesus loved others unconditionally, the contradictions to Jesus’ behavior [by other Christians throughout the Bible] were numerous.
Men killed each other in the name of God. Under God’s command, Abraham terrorized and abused his son by binding and nearly killing him. God supported King Solomon, a polygamist. In many instances, slavery was neither rejected nor condemned. Women were to be humble and meek subjects of their husbands. They were stoned for adultery and rejected for “promiscuousness.” In addition, a woman had initiated the downfall of the human race. The mentally ill were, in some cases, considered possessed by demons. These terrified me as a woman amidst her own battle with mental illness. The bigotry appalled and pained me. I could not agree with much of what was asked of me.
Why weren’t people “good” because of how loving, kind, compassionate, and honest they were? Why were they only considered good enough if they were also Christian? Those who were gay couldn’t be fully acceptable, even if they were the most wonderful human beings. Why? Because they loved differently? It wasn’t because of how they hurt others; it was because of how they loved others. This love was categorized and labeled as unacceptable and deficient. It was false love. And those who weren’t Christians weren’t supposed to be acceptable for me to spend time with or date, as they were somehow “yoked” differently than I. It didn’t even matter if they were better people than some of the Christians I’d met. It didn’t matter if they accepted and loved me instead of judging and criticizing me, as many others within my own religion did. They were still, somehow, subordinate. It meant that even if a Christian wasn’t as a good a person as a non-Christian, he or she was still acceptable simply because believed in and worshiped the same God.
As I had a father who wasn’t Christian, the rejection of non-Christians greatly offended and confused me. When he passed away, I refused to believe he could not have gone somewhere good simply because he had not believed Jesus was the savior of humankind. It seemed ridiculous that my family fastened their hopes to the possibility he maybe converted before he’d passed. Why was that so important? Nothing within my own religion comforted me when he died. I imagined him crying out in pain as he hung suspended, trapped half-way between heaven and hell. Why should I pray for his soul? It was so beautiful, even in all of its flaws. I loved him fiercely, and there was no doubt in my mind that someone who had supposedly loved him more than I had, would allow him to feel pain or suffering for eternity. I would never send my father to hell, even if he didn’t believe in Jesus. If God’s love was the type that would, I didn’t want to be any part of it.
In addition, due to my father’s own beliefs (that there was a God but that evolution undoubtably existed), I grew up questioning the concept of eternal life. Apart from my doubts as to who could or couldn’t be saved, other things did not connect. How was it that I was only a good person if I went to church, repented to someone else for the hurtful things I’d done, and was more willing to believe in someone I couldn’t even see? How was it that I was bad or sinful for doubting God and wanting proof? And, finally, how was it that I was bad for having these natural human desires—desires I couldn’t even control if I wanted to? I grew up inherently wanting to love and accept everyone. I grew up wanting every person to be included and shown kindness. To be told I shouldn’t love wholeheartedly not only puzzled but hurt me. Why?
After a long struggle with mental illness, I returned to school at 21 and took my first philosophy class. That was when the pieces of the puzzle finally began to fit together clearly. It felt right. I became friends with my philosophy professor and spent nearly everyday that first semester in his office, discussing everything from the ontologies of life and death to language and religion. It was the first time that I was completely honest with myself about something I’d known for a long time but fought due to fear—I was straying from Christianity. It didn’t resonate with me.
While I was absolutely terrified, shaken, and lost, I was also incredibly excited that I was free to voice the questions I’d always been discouraged to ask. I’d struggled to be free and tear down the old, damaging belief system in order to create my own ideology from its foundation—from a place of study, critique, meditation, and informed reasoning. I was allowed to have an open mind, to speak what I felt and wished to learn about more, and to listen to the ideas and concepts of others. It was the hardest class I’ve taken but also the most rewarding. I eagerly signed up for another semester.
Since then, I’ve learned to be more loving, accepting, open-minded, and curious—the things I naturally am but had battled for years. How many of us go through life with belief systems that are based on what we’ve been told and taught by others? How many of us have challenged them or really allowed ourselves to ask the questions to which we are too afraid to give our full attention? How many of us are willing to stick our feet outside of the taboos of the society, religion and culture in which we were raised to simply ask, “Why?” Why must we? Why shouldn’t we? Why do we believe this or don’t believe that?
I never want to be so firm in my convictions that I invalidate the experiences and beliefs of others. I never wish to degrade, injure, mistreat, judge, or exploit others. Perhaps someday I will return to God, but until then, I must ask. We must all first try to understand what we never did. We must ask what we never have.
In the words of T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Author: Kayla Hense
Editor: Travis May
Image: Flickr/John Ragai