It’s a gorgeous super-early-Monday morning; insomnia’s got me watching the dawn while the cowcat is having a Grooming Emergency beside me, and her frantic grooming session reminded me of something I realized not long ago. The birds are singing, the world’s waking up, and I was just thinking about the importance of being gentle to yourself. I say that a lot, because I think often we forget about that important kindness in our rush to be kind to others. So this morning, I want to talk about why being gentle to yourself is important, especially for those of us who have left religion.
Be gentle to yourself.
Rumination is an actual psychology term that means to mentally chew old soup in your mind (I love that term from David Eddings’ fantasy writing, don’t you?). It’s when you can’t seem to stop running old memories over and over in your mind, and it’s got this implication of beating yourself up over stuff you did or said or thought in the past that you just can’t seem to get past and let go of. It just keeps hammering at your mind and battering your psyche.
I genuinely think that religious people–and ex-religious people–are especially prone to rumination. Writers, sensitive people, empathetic people, they all tend to ruminate a little. It’s part of why writers are good at remembering stuff, incidentally, and I strongly suspect it’s also part of how the best poets manage to find just the right way to write something, so the habit’s not all bad. But rumination can become unhealthy when you’ve had a very bad experience or you’ve been indoctrinated with a serious guilt or shame mentality. I wonder sometimes if rumination is a sort of self-medication, sort of like wringing one’s hands or twisting one’s hair; maybe it has some kind of weird soothing function or something. But it doesn’t feel soothing. It can quickly become a cycle that all but cripples its sufferers.
And when you leave a religion, there are so many things you can beat yourself up over. Let me tell you, I’ve been there. I felt so stupid, so completely gullible when I realized just how flatly untrue my religion’s truth claims were, how unhealthy its concepts, how beyond-predatory its ideas. I felt scammed, fleeced, and hung out to dry by the leaders of my faith. I felt used and betrayed in just about every sense of the word. I felt like I’d put my trust in people who didn’t deserve that trust–that maybe I hadn’t investigated them well enough, that I’d stayed way past the time I should have left, that I’d taken more and accepted more and excused more and ignored more than any sane person ever should. I’d wasted my money on tithes to churches and missionaries spreading lies; I’d burned countless hours talking to myself or the ceiling; I’d married an absolutely awful man convinced that my invisible master had told me to do it. I’d ruined my life in a hundred different ways.
And dear friends, that was just the beating I gave myself over my own personal shortcomings! Once my rat-bastard of a brain had gotten done beating me up for those, it could now start in on earnest with how I’d treated others and what effect I’d had on society in general by being an outspoken part of a vile, contemptible, abusive group of control-freaks and zealots. Oh yes, I knew I’d mistreated people in my life because I was convinced I was “loving” them or “saving” them somehow, when really I was acting very hatefully and abusively. It still takes my breath away sometimes even today to remember how alienated and hurt I surely made the people around me. I’ve atoned where I could, but I don’t know if even a lifetime is enough to apologize to them all. Oh man, I was such a twit.
I know I’m not the only one who feels that way–who sometimes feels dumb, stupid, ashamed, snookered, guilty.
Be gentle to yourself.
Can the train stop for maybe just a little while?
We all mess up. I mess up all the time. I try not to, and I try to take responsibility when I realize I’m wrong, and dear me, isn’t that about all anybody can be expected to do? Religion’s a powerful thing. It’s had thousands and thousands of years to perfect its angle, its shtick, its game. The real miracle is that any of us makes the roll to disbelieve. The real surprise is that any of us manages to wake up from that fever-dream. None of us is an idiot or a gullible dolt for having fallen for that con-game. And now that we’re out, we’re doing our level best to grow and improve and not do that again.
We don’t have to beat ourselves up anymore.
We can be done with that.
It’s okay. You’re okay.
Be gentle to yourself.
I used to have a manager who would say, when she or someone else totally messed up, “Well, we learned!” And we always did, which is the important part. If you learn from a mistake, then it was a lesson you well and truly earned, and it is yours in a deep and intimate way that nothing else in the world could ever be anybody’s. It’s yours in a way that can never be taken away from you. It was a true lesson that was bought at a great price–and a real one at that, not a fake price paid for fake crimes by a fake “Savior.” The sheer reality going on here versus the sheer fantasy going on before our deconversions ought to just dizzy any ex-Christian.
I caught myself thinking about some of those old painful memories this morning, and realized that while I was lost in thought, the sky had suddenly begun tasting of morning–you know what I mean?–and the birds had begun singing. While I was chewing old soup, a sliver of pale ghostly light at the horizon had appeared to tell me that the world had begun the slow revving-up for another day. What else had I missed? What vital, beautiful part of this pre-dawn had I entirely not seen because I was lost in thought like that? Can just for today, just today of all days simply because it is so beautiful and so real outside, can we just for this one day be gentle to ourselves? Can we say “You did the best you could, Self, and you learned, and you’ll know better next time,” when those thoughts come, and let ourselves off the hook this time so we can be part of this beautiful world for this one day?
I’ll sign off with this little story about my tuxedo cat. She is a tiny little cat and pretty much hates everybody; unfortunately, she’s incredibly cute, with a black button nose, white socks on all her paws, and a dense coat that reminds me of dairy cows. When cuddled, she curls up into a pillbug shape and will stay there as long as you want to keep her there, but the savage hatred in her eyes never dims. She’s become more affectionate in her dotage–she’s creeping up on her teens here–but that assessment is very much a matter of slightest degree rather than a binary yes/no thing; she’s slightly less hateful and beastly, but nobody will ever mistake her for a sweet loving kitty. She is the most catlike cat I have ever known–clever, shrewd, but monumentally dense and genuinely aloof unless she suddenly explosively requires attention. Her purr is loud and always sounds like she’s not entirely sure how this purring thing is supposed to work; she loves to play with toys, but goes to the most pains I’ve ever seen a cat take in my life not to accidentally claw a human’s hands (and if she does accidentally claw a human while playing, she immediately pulls back with what looks like genuine embarrassment). I confess that sometimes it really feels like she is a space alien who is impersonating a cat and doing all that stuff that it thinks cats are supposed to do, without understanding why cats do any of it. I’m telling you this so you can marvel along with me at what is coming next, because it was just so totally out of character for her:
Some years ago I thought it’d be funny to tip her over, since she’s a cow-cat; you know, cat-tipping. I’d reach out and gently tump her over onto her side if it was safe to do so. She’d go down with a flump, with this absolutely mystified expression on her little face every single time, like she was wondering just what in the world was wrong with me. I thought it was hilarious because I’m immature that way, so I’d habitually reach out and “tip” my cowcat over while passing by. Eventually it became a game; she’d purr thunderously and rabbit-kick the covers or couch cushions while I tipped her one way and the other and for a minute or two it’d be like she was a real kitty instead of a space alien.
One day, I was walking past the bedroom with some laundry and she was standing on the bed. I stopped and looked at her to see if she was getting into trouble. Our eyes met, human and feline, like a Wild West showdown.
And then she tipped herself over onto her side: FLUMP!
I stared in shock, but she just looked at me expectantly, as if impatiently waiting for me to come do that thing I always did to entertain her.
She does it all the time now. I’ll walk up to her and she’ll tip herself over–FLUMP!–and wait for me to come play with her and pet her. That day marked the beginning of her very slow and gradual wafting descent into occasional sort-of-friendliness.
I’m telling you this not just because it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen a cat do, but because I want to tell you that you can get used to absolutely anything and start thinking it is normal. That doesn’t mean it’s normal at all. You might be used to beating yourself up or thinking of yourself as some kind of dolt or idiot for buying into religion as long as you did, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. Eventually I realized that what she was doing, I did too in my head–I’d made patterns for behavior and thinking that weren’t really very good for me, but which had settled into a habit and routine. I could stop that routine, and so can you. The day I saw her tip herself over for me, I realized all of this, and I want to share it with you now.
We all do the best we can how with what we know and have. We’ll make mistakes. That’s a necessary part of the human condition–nobody is mistake-free. But the important thing is to learn and grow from those mistakes. And I bet you learned and you grew and you did what you had to do to keep your sanity intact just like I did, and that is way more than this bizarre little cat ever will.
So you all have my permission to enjoy today and cut yourself a little slack.
Happy Monday, world. We’ll do the regularly-planned piece next time, but I just had to get that off my chest.
Be gentle to yourself.