Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Facing irrational fears

This article came to me yesterday while hiking alone in the Owens Peak Wilderness.

I have always had an irrational fear of heights.  My friends know of my enthusiasm for hiking in the mountains, and they are always surprised when they discover just how nervous I sometimes get when I am out on the trails.  My fear does not come from some dangerous risk that I should not be taking.  My fear does not come from a rational fear of falling.  I am usually in no danger when the knot of fear grips my stomach.  If I am hiking along a mountain ledge or canyon rim, I make sure that I am far enough from the ledge to be out of danger.  There is no reason to be afraid when I watch my step and keep a safe distance.  But the fear sometimes becomes overwhelming, and there have been times when it became so bad that I would sit, squeeze my eyes closed and refuse to take another step.  I am perched on a ledge that is hundreds or even thousands of feet above the surrounding area.  The vista is spectacular, and the swirling clouds are so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch them.  But even though I keep a safe distance from danger, my brain dwells the fact that I have it within my own power, if I wished, to walk to the edge of the precipice, dive off, and spiral down to the rocky sawteeth below.  I am not afraid of the real danger, I am afraid of the vision of perceived helplessness that I replay in my head.  

I once heard worry defined as imagining the worst possible outcome of some scenario, then obsessing over that worst possible thing happening.  In my case, the worst possible scenario is actively walking to the ledge and jumping.  When I am the upper floor of a hotel, or even looking over a high balcony, the thought enters my head of opening the window, climbing over the railing, and taking a nosedive.  I once walked a few hundred yards over the Golden Gate Bridge but I had to turn back after looking at the water far below.  I obsessed over the thought of cutting through all the suicide barriers and hurtling into the bay.  I am not suicidal.  I have no desire to jump.  There is no rational reason that I would ever purposefully and intentionally overcome all safety barriers placed there for my protection, and jump.  Yet, my stomach knots up with fear.  I am not afraid of a real danger of falling.  I am afraid of an irrational and imagined vision that I place in my head.

I have had this fear since I was a young boy, but over the years it has gotten better.  Constant travel for work has eased my fear of flying.  Air turbulence that used to paralyze me with fear now rarely bothers me.  My refusal to quit hiking in the mountains has also helped.  The fact that I know my fears are irrational allows me to confront the fear before it overwhelms me. 

When I am up in the mountains, I can sometimes see the trail far out in front of me.  While the trail is wide enough that I should feel no danger, all I see ahead of me is a thin hairline sliver that is barley etched into the face of the sheer rock wall, and dangling far over the valley below.  My stomach seizes and my brain wants my feet to stop.  In the perspective of the whole mountain, I am such a tiny speck that I imagine a sudden whirlwind launching me over the edge.  The mountain looks like it could shrug its shoulders and throw me off like a dog shaking off a flea.  But I know such fears are irrational, and there is nothing to fear.  My enjoyment of the hike and the freedom of the wilderness must overcome all irrationality.  I put the image of falling out of my head, sometimes by scolding myself, sometimes by just humming a melody, and I am eventually able to overcome my fears.  I have learned not to let irrationality and fear destroy what I love in life.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions

The story is over.  What I had initially thought would take me 2 or 3 months of continuous writing turned into 19 months of occasional writing and long breaks.  The writing was not the hard part.  It was the motivation to dredge up the sometimes unpleasant memories, and the thoughtful labor involved in organizing all my thoughts towards the goal of discovering exactly why I converted into Christianity, and why I ultimately had to leave it.  But I am finally finished, and I think I have answered those questions to my own satisfaction.  I wrote it for myself, so that I could discover those answers for myself, but I will leave it in this public forum for anybody who wishes to read it.  I will use this page as a sort of ‘Table of Contents’ to allow me to click on individual articles in the story a little more easily.

I was inspired to write my ‘Spiritual Journey’, if I must call it that, after re-reading Kerry Livgren’s similarly themed autobiography, Seeds of Change.  As I wrote in the very first article of my own series, I was impressed with Livgren’s story because he showed how his decision to convert to Christianity and reject his growing musical fame was not a singular event.  Rather, that decision was the result of a lifetime of experiences and personal meditation, sometimes reaching back into his early childhood.  I wanted to do the same thing with my own story.  Some of the thinking I had as an adult was formed out of events that occurred while I was in still in grade school.  As I have often said, the story of my de-conversion is necessarily the story of my life.  Even though Livgren and I came to vastly different conclusions regarding our religious beliefs, I wanted to show that I also did not make a hasty decision to leave Christianity.  For me, it was the result of over 40 years of experiences, education and deep thought.

Am I right?  I think so, but I have been wrong before.  I can defend most of my positions, but I have learned that I must welcome the possibility that I may be shown to be wrong.  I once thought that I could know and understand the absolute and exclusive Truth about the nature of reality through faith and revelation.  But I will no longer make such claims.  I no longer preach the Gospel of absolute Truth and Certainty.  Methodology is more important than certainty.  I am done with Dogmatism.

Livgren concluded his book with a chapter called Soapbox, in which he vented about the sad state of popular music in the 1980’s and early 90’s.  Portions of that chapter can be read HERE.  In a similar vein I also wrote a concluding chapter, in which I vented some frustrations of my own.  I ultimately decided to leave my own Soapbox off, and leave the story where it is. 

If anybody ever decides they want to know why I left Christianity, I will point them here.  If anybody thinks I was rash in my decision, and threw the baby out with the bathwater, I will point them here.  This is my story.  After writing it, I discovered for myself exactly why I converted into Christianity, and I also know exactly why I left it.  This is why:

I introduce my motivations for wanting to write about my ‘Spiritual Journey’.

I introduce my parents and a little of their religious pedigree.

My parents rejected their respective religious traditions, and I saw a lot of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

Mom got swept up in the hippie 'Jesus Movement' and my world became Pentecostal magic and miracles.

As a religious adolescent, I learned to be guilty of what came natural. 

I temporarily drop the religion, but continue as an overgrown adolescent.  My future does not look bright.

Miserable and hopeless, I take the only option that I can see.  I learn again to love Jesus.

I describe in some detail my life as a 'Born Again Christian'.  Here are the beliefs that I held, the sacrifices that I made, the street preaching that I performed, and the bogus apologetics and pseudo-science that I had to accept.  I also describe the constant fears, paradoxes and anxieties that Christian dogma imposed on me.

A mission trip reveals the Christian hypocrisy I was engaged in.  I have to leave my home church.  This part contains clips from an old home movie.

I read one too many Asimov books, and become fascinated by the mysteries of science.

My introduction to astrophysics, the scientific method and skepticism

I meet my future wife.  I describe some of her religious background as a Catholic.

I learn a bit about Catholicism and how that affected my own Protestant beliefs.

I am desperate to be a good husband, so I try to be good the only way I know how - religion.  The results are nearly disastrous.

I start to apply critical reasoning to my religious beliefs while married to a Catholic believer and hosting Bible studies.  It is a precarious balancing act.

I retreat to Christian apologetics to save my crumbling Faith.  The plan backfires.

I finally abandon my Christian faith.  Now what?