As I’ve gone through some of my old posts and relived some of the ways in which family and friends responded to my de-conversion, one important thing emerged. Much of my suffering hinged on me believing that they were responding to me personally and I was somehow in the wrong–the damager, the bad person.
As I read the old posts, I was reminded of a book I read a while back, by Don Miguel Ruiz, entitled “The Four Agreements.” One of his chapters, “The Second Agreement, Don’t take things personally,” was extremely insightful. Ruiz writes, “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.” As I considered that idea, it struck me, when someone responds in anger and fear it’s because of their anger, and their fear. I wish I had been able to see that early on in my journey out of Fundamentalist Christianity.
When my sister screamed at me that I was going to Hell, I wish I could have responded in love, maybe saying “I know this is scary for you, but I’m still me” and then believed it. When a Christian friend got mad and told me that she took it personally that I would no longer be in church worshipping with her, I wish that I had not taken on her insecurity as my own, feeling like the bad guy. When my best friend told me that she hadn’t invited me to her daughter’s wedding because she was afraid to have me there because it was a Christian wedding, I should have been able to recognize the fear in her eyes as being fear of her own doubts, not of me personally. If I had understood that then, I would have been able to walk away from those encounters feeling empathy, not like I’d just been punched in the sternum.
I’m not sure if seeing those and other situations through that lens would have changed the outcome of any of those relationships, but it would have probably eased the heartbreak and shame that I suffered at their words and would have helped me understand them better. As Ruiz explains that when people spew anger on you, “You eat all their emotional garbage, and now it becomes your garbage. But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell.” I wish I had understood that then, because, man, I felt like I was in the middle of hell.
Back then, I took everything Christian family and friends said and did personally. I really felt like it was my responsibility to make them understand, ease their fears and their anger. I’ve come to realize that I can’t fix those things in others. Their responses to me, at their core, were not about me and that gives me the freedom to exercise empathy and compassion. Will I still take things personally? Of course, but I hope less and less. For a while I thought that getting pissed off instead of hurt was progress, but I’m beginning to see that the concept of “it’s not about me; it’s about them,” is going to have a much more positive impact on me and the people around me.