Do I contradict myself? Very well, then—I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes. (Walt Whitman)
I am an agnostic in talk–that is to say, if I had to mold it into a word, “agnostic” is the representational shape I’d choose. I am an atheist in practice–there’s no important divine dimension to my life, no consideration of religion as I go about my day. I am maybe a part-time Buddhist, but only when I suffer–for consolatory purposes, I suppose. I am many things. I am that I am.
This was not always the case—when I was in high school I was a fundamentalist Christian. My experience with Christianity was inimitable–while it didn’t work out for me, I’ve seen it working out for others in powerful ways; this is a disclaimer that my own conflict with Christianity as depicted in this piece is not an indictment of the faith as a whole, many of whose tenets I respect and still try to uphold.
I tried to be another person for God. Picture God anthropomorphically, as a man or a woman. When I became a Christian I, in effect, began a relationship with God, except God had high standards that never changed. I felt like I had to reach them—he sometimes helped me up, but he never changed for me. I remember telling my peers that homosexuality was a sin (and that a sin was a sin—homosexuals, rapists, thieves…they were all in the same hellbound boat).
I was a Christian out of self-hatred. I wanted to outsource myself, replace it with something “good,” and seal it in forever with the caulk of weekly churchgoing, daily prayer. I was desperate enough for this that I turned off my mind to critical thinking. I disabled, as much as I could, the connection between my mind and my body. I stopped listening to myself. I remember, as I went through puberty, feeling horny all the time. But somehow I identified that as a sin, too. I prayed for my feelings to go away. I prayed to feel nothing. I prayed to be a robot…
Aim—throw. Aim—throw. The metal-nib of the mechanical pencil went deep into the wall, twice. Two holes like eyes staring back at me in judgment.
I hated himself: as a body, as a personality.
My body—I hated my baby fat, the two tongues drooping from my pits. Pits that were too pale. I hated my farmer’s tan. My myopia. I was pear-shaped, skinny-fat. I hated my unmanly voice (its petulance—on the bus in eighth grade a boy in the back told me I sounded like a girl, to laughter, even from the kids who never laughed at anything).
My personality—I hated, among other things, how much of a landmine I could be, how my parents’ minutiae alone could set me off, make me explode into a dangerous, damaging thing. I hated my vengeful temper. Slam—the car door wrecked. Slam—the doorstop breaking off the bottom corner of the door, the doorknob breaking into the wall. Slam—the piano lid coming down, its strings shuddering. I must’ve scared my own parents as much as I scared myself.
I didn’t really know what else to do besides become a Christian.
I remember the day I was saved. How do I do this?
Standing up? No. I closed his eyes, got on my butt. My butt was not it. I got on my knees.
“Dear God, please-please-please help me. I am a sinner. I have sinned. I am a…I need you. I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. In his name I pray, amen.”
Or was it In Jesus name, amen. Or was I supposed to say I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and I give myself over to him for improvement. I didn’t know what to do besides open my eyes, one at a time, waiting, tongue-tied, for a rumble in the sky, a dramatic drop in temperature, something…
My mother is a fundamentalist Christian. This means (or this is how I determine it means) that she believes that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and that Christians have the Holy Spirit within them to help them interpret its verses. When I was a fundamentalist Christian she and I became very close, which I was grateful for since we’d drifted apart when I was in middle school. I’d go to church with her every Sunday, download Charles Stanley podcasts, and sometimes we’d stay up late into the night talking about what we’d learned. We’d pray together, weep together, and the whole time my simmering despair and doubt were all on the backburner, smoking away inside me.
Dear God, I don’t know what Mr. Kimura is playing on the piano right now. I don’t know what interval that is—I have no ear. God, I’ve played piano most of my life, I’ve skipped Certificate of Merit levels, I’ve aced them all—please, please, can I have perfect pitch? I’ll work for it. What do I need to do? Please help me. Make me determined. Make me disciplined. I’ll practice two hours a day. Maybe three. Rubinstein did four, but I’m a junior, I feel so depleted, inspire me, God, for Christ’s sake—sorry, please forgive me…
Eleventh grade. Pimpled high school juniors agonizing over the Common App. College essays in their nth revision. High-strung hysteria diagnosable by the dark, baggy eyes, the sick-looking skin. I believed I depended on God for success.
I was sitting beside a friend in the back row of AP Music Theory, trying to identify the progression by ear, when I saw a boy in my grade randomly stand up from his seat in the front row to navigate the maze of chairs toward me.
“Mind if I sit next to you?” he said, stepping out of the maze and gesturing to the empty seat on my left. I remember turning to my right and making surprised eye contact with my friend, an eyebrow arched in confusion. I turned to him and looked up, eyebrow back in place.
“Go for it,” I said, smiling warily. He sat down and we made small talk.
Thanks! No problem. Did you get the chord progression? I got the first chord. Cool. Did you? No.
At some point soon after he asked, “Are you religious?”
“Yeah,” I said, taken aback.
“Why?” he asked, nonchalantly.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out—I held my tongue, unsure of how to answer.
Serendipity always seems fatalistic in retrospect. That boy would become one of my best friends, and he’d challenge me to think apart from God for a bit of perspective. He exposed me to Descartes and the double-slit experiment and asked critical questions at which I was forced to try to articulate a relationship with God I was no longer happy in, no longer wanted to be in.
When I told my mom I was no longer a Christian, months after that first with my friend, her eyes were larger than usual from sheer surprise. Larger then suddenly smaller again, disappointed, sad.
I was no longer a Christian because I realized how little of myself I had left.
I was suffocating. God was a principled man. He was loving to me, “accepted” me for who I was, but when I was with him I was always a sinner. There was a vocabulary to what I did: some things were commendable, others punishable—things about myself, like my sexuality, that he convinced me I could change. Sinner. I internalized everything he said. I told my classmates that I didn’t support marriage equality, that they shouldn’t. I wanted to hurt myself for thinking about boys all the time.
I remember when I collapsed on the hardwood floor of my room one night wishing to just die. “I deserve to die,” I told God, “because I can’t live up to what you want me to be.”
And I really believed that I deserved to die. In the moment I couldn’t see that I’d pretty much given myself away to God, and I didn’t know if I’d ever get it back. That night I wanted to die not because of the depression I was going through, the circumstances I was in—but rather because I thought it would be for the best for his sake. I asked him to take me, and in the darkness of the room I heard nothing but my own ragged breath. God’s silence of that night–as with his silence at all of my other broken-down begging throughout the years–produced its own strange epiphany. Just take me, just take me…
After I left God I felt alone. In an essay I wrote about the experience—which I called “Emancipation”—I described it like this: “The tripod that had supported me toppled, but it was not replaced. I feared that without the sturdy grip of religion, I would be released into lightless space—suspended, spiraling through darkness.” And it did feel that way. I felt alone, in my own company, but what I found out during this time was that there was really nothing in me that was my own and not God’s. I questioned everything—my morals, my motivations, my habits. I became obsessed with having a reason for it all—an objective reason, something that I came to on my own terms, in my own ways.
I became more self-aware. I had a sense of narrative that had been absent before. I tried to take on different perspectives, to see things from all possible sides. And yet I still felt so unsure, so unstable. I felt that everything was too fleeting and too relative, that there was no truth out there, beyond me, something I could hold on to. There were times when I wanted to pray about it, but I clenched my knuckles, chewed on them, forced myself to figure it out on my own.
There is nothing to hold on to. It’s taken me years to integrate this into my life, but I now know, without the feedback loop of overthinking, that identity is fluid and circumstantial (less a durable interior thing and more a synergistic, organic whole) and good luck trying to build anything on it, to say, I am this, or I am that, and expect yourself to actually be that way. I am many things now and many different things later. I don’t have to be a cutout construct, a part of this group and not a part of that group. I can be groups grouped together, constellations…
I am that I am that I am.