Life has a funny way of throwing stuff at us that we don’t expect. I had one of those moments not long ago, and it reminded me of one of those all-too-human weaknesses people have. When we find ourselves waiting for an outcome, we can start to get desperate. I can see why we might have evolved that burst of hormones and chemicals that overtakes us at such times, but this exact process can be easily manipulated by those who wish to take advantage of us. Today, we look at the waiting room, both physical and metaphorical, and where that anxiety can take us if we’re not careful.
My First Mammogram.
I had my first mammogram recently. It’s definitely a signal to me that I’m getting older. And I left mine rather on the late side, thinking the magic age was 50; no, it’s actually 40-45. I’m almost 50, with a family history of the Big C. But fine, my doctor reminded me of it during my physical and I got it done afterward.
The procedure itself wasn’t as painful or as awful as I feared. The young woman doing it was very kind. As we both danced around this massive, unwieldy scanner, we briefly molded flesh to machine, yielding to the convenience and preference of metal and glass. She complimented me on how well I posed upon command, how easy it was to manipulate my body into the shapes and configurations required. (I gave all of the credit to my misspent youth in puppetry and theatre.)
But afterward, waiting for the machine’s verdict, I found myself anxious in a way I haven’t been in years.
I was suddenly dangling between two fates, and it wasn’t a fun place to be.
(Spoiler: I’m fine. I might have dangled for a bit, but I won’t make you dangle with me unnecessarily.)
Just before I got my verdict, I watched an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
In the episode, “American Tragedy,” two African-American parents are in a hospital waiting to see their adolescent son, who was taken there after getting shot by a white celebrity chef. While they yell at a police officer about how this could have happened, a doctor in scrubs interrupts. He asks them to come talk to him privately.
My breath caught in my throat. Tears came to my eyes as he ushered them into a quiet glassed-in waiting room to talk to them.
The scene was well-handled all the way around, I think. I’d never seen this show before; this episode showed up in my stream and on impulse I watched it.
This is that moment everyone fears. This is the moment between fates.
These parents dangled between their son’s life and his death, and didn’t know which it’d be until the doctor told them. That kind of waiting is agony. It’s not that he wasn’t between those fates anyway; he was. It’s the knowledge that a verdict is coming that we’re helpless to change.
Hospital dramas constantly serve up that kind of tension to viewers. In almost every program, worried loved ones wait for news. I’ve begun to notice those scenes more than I used to. I’ve also begun to notice that actors rarely fail to portray that situation realistically and effectively.
I’m not surprised.
They’re portraying a feeling that is as universal an element of the human situation as anything could be.
We Need to Talk.
In similar fashion, I reckon most folks cringe inside when a significant other utters that horrific sentence, “We need to talk.” I’ve seen people respond to this sentence by just asking outright if there’s going to be a breakup involved. If so, they just want to get it over with.
For many people, when we hear something like this, our minds start racing.
- What’s wrong?
- Can’t I start addressing whatever’s wrong now instead of stewing about it for hours or days?
- Why haven’t I heard about any problems before now?
- Am I seriously this oblivious that I didn’t notice a problem big enough to warrant We need to talk?
- Can I at least get a heads-up about what this is about instead of being hit with it?
That feeling of being hit by surprise is probably the worst part of it, though. Like someone’s just given us a heads-up about a problem, but won’t tell us what or why. Instead, we have to simmer and wait.
I am so so so not–okay with this method of communicating. We get enough of that sort of anxiety in life without having to add to it.
A Timeless God? Not So Much.
When I was Christian, I prayed with all of my heart when awaiting a big verdict about big situations. Early on, I prayed for my god to alter events in the past, to go back in time and make it so that the terrible thing never happened at all. Of course, I knew that if I was even making the prayer, he had already decided what was going to happen (or I wouldn’t even know about the event).
Indeed, Christians talk about this question all the time. Here’s a major Catholic site informing readers about “God’s eternal now,” before ripping the rug away by declaring that the Christian god can’t affect the past, sorry. I don’t know if any Christians have successfully resolved that contradiction-in-terms: an eternal and omnipotent god who exists in all times at once, but who can’t change anything that has already happened.
After a while, as time matured me and mellowed my high expectations, I tended to think, as this Christian does, that “if we don’t know what happened, there is still time to pray about it.” I learned very early on that praying about a change to anything that had already happened was a pointless endeavor. Only ignorance could save me from life-altering bad news. My god could only work his magic in that time between knowing a verdict was coming, and hearing what it was.
You can probably imagine what effect this realization had on me in the long run.
Rejecting Christianity means so much more than simply coming to a conclusion about the religion’s supernatural claims. That’s the kind of insidious programming that can last for many decades afterward–or even a lifetime.
The Human Situation.
Once the verdict falls, whatever it is, it’s almost a relief either way because at least now we know. Even so, when we see someone else get the nasty end of the flavor stick, our compassion is there with them.
While I waited for my test results, I analyzed and over-analyzed everything to death.
Needing to know is just part of being human. We know that these emotions are perfectly normal. Indeed, doctors are well aware of that particular anxiety. Some even have pages on their websites advising patients how to deal with it in a constructive way.
And yet I stewed.
Why did they try to leave a half dozen messages for me on the weekend? Was that an indication of good news or bad news? By the time I got the messages, the doctor’s office was closed. I had to wait till Monday.
We get that anxiety any time we’re waiting for a verdict about anything important. It’s just part of being human.
I tried not to fret, but I’d set myself a purely-impossible task. I tried to remember that whatever was happening, it was happening already. The time would pass the same whether or not I’d gotten the scans done at all. In particular, I tried not to think about my mother, who died of cancer some 15 years ago. I tried to keep busy and to think about other things. That works as well as one might expect. Glitches in our neurochemistry can make it particularly difficult for some people to escape such thoughts.
On Monday morning, bright and early, I rolled for initiative. In other words, I called them. The receptionist put me on hold to get the doctor. Why couldn’t she just TELL me? Another hold; my doctor was with another patient, so they were getting another doctor in the practice who was free right then. Oh boy. That doesn’t sound good.
I thrummed with anxiety by the time I heard the other doctor’s unfamiliar voice. He instantly and immediately told me everything looked great, normal, fine. The office had only tried so hard to get ahold of me because they knew I’d be concerned, what with it being my first time and all.
He laughed a little when I said that I’d actually been quite alarmed by the high number of messages and attempts, but I agreed that everyone has their own ways of reacting to things. I wasn’t angry with his office; I was grateful that they’d been so diligent. They had no way of knowing what I’d think–and really, there’s probably no perfectly-graceful way to handle this situation.
Out of the Fire.
For the parents in the SVU episode I saw, they weren’t fortunate. The episode didn’t reveal exactly what the doctor said, but from the parents’ instant transition from deep anxiety to catastrophic grief, you could tell exactly what they’d learned. Nobody needed to tell the show’s main characters what had happened to this couple’s son.
I received better news than they did. I’m out of the breast cancer fire for another year. I’m not super-worried about cancer; heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks are how my mother’s side of the family typically bites it. Mom died of cancer, we’re sure now, because she contracted HPV from her philandering first husband, not because her genes were even worse than usual for our family.
But for just a few days I dangled over that precipice. Once again, I became acutely aware that the only difference between one fate and another is a set of different words ending that agonizing period of waiting.
Until we get those words, we are both there and not-there. And it is excruciating.
This is exactly the mindset that makes us prey for hucksters and mountebanks. Whether they sell snake oil or religion or both, they have a much easier time selling it to people who are completely desperate.
Some Christians declare that they’re “pan-trib,” as I described in the endnote there, meaning that whenever the Tribulation occurs in the Rapture timeline, it’ll all still “pan out” for them if they believe. This declaration is meant to help them escape the huge, near-crippling worry about the Endtimes that strikes so many Christians.
But anxiety about the future is exactly why so many Christians cling to their faith as hard as they do. They fear losing what they view as their very last and best safety net, one that can catch them at the last second if they fall. They maintain belief in their god in the same way that a child has faith that a parental figure can catch them at the end no matter what they do or what misfortune befalls them. Religion hijacks that perfectly normal phase of childhood emotional development–and Christians who are even aware of the dynamic are proud of keeping themselves in that near-childlike phase.
If their god existed and actually did anything for anybody, that’d be one thing. But they’re forcing themselves to stay children in service to a deity who is either nonexistent or else functionally so.
When I see a Christian leader prey upon that desperation, oh honey, I just see red. Oh, sure, Christians prey upon lots of human anxieties–I once got completely enraged by a preening Christian apologist who tried to promise that if someone joined his religion, they could see their dead relatives again. These people offer something that they do not have, and they just hope nobody notices.
Oh indeed, Christians don’t hesitate at all to offer their god as a literal “safety net.” Nor do they hesitate to stoop to such lows as preying upon people waiting in medical offices for news of their loved ones, any more than they hesitate to hunt for sales among any other ultra-vulnerable population. And other Christians laud these disgusting, grotesque predators for doing all of it, and more, and worse.
I can’t even remember all the Christians I’ve seen and heard talk about getting through that anxious phase of waiting thanks to their faith in their nonexistent god. It purely blows their minds that someone might “choose” to forego the safety net they imagine having. They can’t even imagine going through all these tough situations and fears without that hope–all on their own, teetering above skyscrapers on a thin line without defenses.
But they are doing it all themselves, aren’t they, if their god doesn’t actually exist?
The Black Feather.
Their faith becomes a black feather, locked in a death-grip by a frightened baby elephant who doesn’t yet realize that he can fly without it.
These metaphorical feathers can have value, of course. They only become an obstacle to our growth when we put excessive amounts of trust in them to do things for us that they simply can’t do, and when we limit ourselves mentally through overuse of the feather. Christian leaders only stand to benefit if their flocks don’t realize that they can get through these tough situations without imagining a magical invisible sky wizard benevolently watching over them.
Christians tend to think that way about a lot of things. Christianity becomes, in their minds, a way to escape these universal human situations. They think they needn’t fear oblivion because they cling to a false hope of a magically-delicious afterlife. They think they needn’t fear hardship because they cling to a false hope of their god rescuing them from the worst that life can sling at us all. All too many of them think that they can escape the fear of being wrong because they’re totally sure that their religion is right about everything.
And a great many of them think they needn’t even fear death itself because they’re positive that Jesus is totally coming back within their lifetimes.
A False Solution.
Ultimately, by offering a false solution to the eternal human dread of waiting, Christianity offers its adherents yet another get-out-of-the-human-situation-free card. And like all the others of its nature, we discover it offers little of real value.
Be really wary of anybody who promises you an easy “out” for any aspect of the human situation, especially the tough ones.
NEXT UP: Complementarianism–the fundagelical doctrine of sexism-as-the-bonus-plan–makes a lot of promises and claims. We’ll look at how well it meets those promises. (Second spoiler: It faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaails.)
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