Saturday, 27 October 2012

Day 40: This sort of angst is embarrassing when you're over 25

Day 40 of the Atheist Prayer Experiment was yesterday, on Friday 26th.

After two weeks of more of the same, I decided to give the last day a special effort.  I got on my knees in front of an armchair, with my face in the cat's blanket.  (The blanket bit wasn't planned - it just happened to be there.)

I'm nervous about sharing what I prayed after the request for revelation, as it's personal and talking about it makes me feel vulnerable.  It also makes me feel foolish.

Me and food.  We have a love-hate relationship.  I was bulimic in my twenties and occasionally it comes back.  I think about food, eating and calories far more than is healthy.  It's also really bloody boring. 

Having found the "Be thankful" advice helpful, I thought I'd ask the wise-voice-who-I-think-is-me-but-you-might-think-is-God to help me with this.  Wise-voice-[etc] said:

"What do you want, above all?"

I thought about it.  "I want to have a normal relationship with food.  But I also really want to be thin."

I hate writing this.  At size 8 (UK), I'm not exactly fat, but that's beside the point.  The fact is, I'm super-annoyed with myself for being so in thrall to stupid societal expectations of what women should look like.

The voice came back: "Why don't you meditate on that?"

I've been in therapy so, on an intellectual level, I know what's going on here.  Control issues, fear of letting go, fear that I can't trust myself and, underneath it all, the belief that I have to be a certain way in order to be acceptable.  Or lovable.

I felt tearful down there in front of the cat's blanket.  It's frustrating still to have these issues in middle age.  Nonetheless, I'll take the advice on board.  I've been tightening this knot for most of my life and it's not going to dissolve if I keep ignoring it.  I'm just aware that it may take a long time to work loose.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

How I lost my faith (4)

In York, I scraped by as a musician, living hand to mouth.  The promoter I had met introduced me to several people and put in a good word for me, but he was not a professional manager and only helped me as a favour.  I earned most of my money sitting in the corner of wine bars being ignored by people who occasionally glanced up from their crudités to clap politely.  I also did the odd fun gig, for a real live audience and no remuneration whatsoever.*

This soon ground me down.  I had been so sure that God wanted me to perform, but now I was doing it, I found it uninspiring and lonely.  I didn't know many people in York to start with; those I did know went out socialising when I went out to work.  I spent hours sitting by the river Ouse, watching squirrels frolic in the trees and wondering whether I could be bothered to drown myself.  I couldn't: it would have required far more willpower than I could summon.  After a few months, realising that these thoughts might just be a sign that I wasn't terribly happy, I decided to go back home to my parents.

This was a huge blow to my pride.  More than that, though, it triggered something of an identity crisis.  For so long, I'd thought of myself as an entertainer and musician.  If that wasn't who I was, then who the heck was I?

My mum found me a job in a local chemist's shop as a pharmacy assistant, so I spent the next few months dispensing drugs, looking longingly at the benzodiazepines and planning my next step.  I looked into going back to university to do a PhD; I even put together a thesis proposal and persuaded a university to take me on.  My parents were happy with this but also sent me off to a group of occupational psychologist for a day.  After hours of aptitude tests and personality profiling, the official verdict was in: academia was a possibility but I might want to consider law.

A schoolfriend had done a one-year postgraduate law conversion course at Exeter University, so I called them and asked if there was space left on their course.  They said there was and that I could join them in October, but that they'd need to know within 24 hours.

By this time, I'd drifted from God and I don't remember praying over my decision.   In any event, I didn't have much time to weigh my options.  I called Exeter the next day and told them, "I'm coming".

A fresh start awaited me.   I was well and once again felt that I had a future.  It was time to repent of having been so distant from God.  Time to turn back to Him.  That Sunday, I attended the morning service of a lively house church near my parents' house.  At the end of the service, I asked someone to pray with me while I rededicated my life to Christ.

Two days later I was in hospital on a drip.  I'd caught a stomach bug and had been throwing up so much that I had become dehydrated.  While I was in hospital, the doctors took blood and ran all the usual tests.  My kidney function had deteriorated.  My immunosuppressive medication was upped, but the results didn't get any better.

I went down to Exeter with a lot of tablets, worries about the future and a fair bit of resentment.  Which of you fathers would give a scorpion to a son who asked for an egg?  Apparently, God would.


*If anyone is interested, I have uploaded some very old recordings onto Soundcloud.  Most of the tracks are originals.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

How I lost my faith (3)

My first year at university was cut short by poor health.  By Easter, I was showing symptoms of end-stage renal failure and was unable to return for summer term.

Both my parents had already been tested as potential kidney donors.  Between them, they decided my dad should go first.  (I know, I have wonderful parents.  I'm very lucky.)

We both underwent tests; I received a blood transfusion from him; the labs analysed our tissue and blood to make sure there were no signs that we shouldn't go ahead.

Shortly before we were scheduled for surgery, the hospital called.  There were unusual antibodies in my blood that were reacting with my father's cells.  The operation couldn't go ahead as long as those antibodies remained.  The doctors had never seen these antibodies before, so they didn't know how long I'd have them.  The operation was postponed indefinitely.

For the first time, I felt angry with God.  I trashed my bedroom. ( My mum was pleased by this - she'd been worried about my lack of emotion over my illness and felt the outburst was healthy.)  I dragged my oh-so-easily-exhausted body up to the hills near my parents house and cried.  I screamed at God.  What the hell was he doing?

The antibodies were thankfully short-lived; as a result, so was the drama.  My anger subsided.  In July 1990, I had my first transplant from my dad and returned to university for my second year.

My body accepted the kidney.

By my final year, I had become a complete Jesus freak.  Apparently I was still likeable enough but, as a good friend told me years later, there were times when I was annoying and - to quote her directly - "I wanted to shove your prayer stool up your nose".

Although I was studying Italian, I spent a lot of time at university playing classical guitar, singing jazz and writing songs.  I was convinced that God wanted me to be a musician/entertainer.  Shortly before my course finished, I met a promoter from York who said he'd help me out if I wanted to work there.

I graduated, spent the summer at various Christian events and moved over to York with my guitar.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Some thoughts on prayer (that Facebook keeps ejecting)

On the Atheist Prayer Experiment Facebook page, quite a few participants have mentioned that praying for people/situations feels pointless, and that they would feel much better if they did something practical.  I agree.

I remember when I was in hospital having tests, at the time when it was becoming clear that my first kidney transplant was failing.  My mother - a lovely woman and a Christian, but not the most subtle individual - asked some of my Christian friends why they had not been to visit me.  When they objected that they had been praying for me, she said "Big deal".  Truth is, I felt a lot more love from the people who bothered to stump up at hospital or took me out for a coffee and listened to me unload.  You prayed for me?  Yeah - big deal.

A phrase from my old Christian days has been running through my head: "God has no hands on earth but yours".

Christians: do you think you ever pop a two-minute prayer heavenward because it makes you feel like you've done something to help but actually it costs you nothing?  I'm pretty sure I was sometimes guilty of that back when I was a Christian.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Atheist Prayer Experiment: four weeks in

I haven't blogged for a few days because I haven't noticed anything new.  I still haven't received anything that I'd call a divine revelation; I'm still discovering the benefits of meditation and contemplation.

Having said that, the "be thankful" thought that came into my head early in the experiment has been a great reminder and has been part of my reintroduction to the amazing world outside my head (and that big, scary place they call "Offline").  So if you think that came from God, he gave me good advice and it's helping.  Whatever or whoever it was, I'm grateful for it.

The other consequence of raising my awareness through gratitude and meditation is that I'm now conscious of personal issues that I need to deal with.  Well, not "need" to deal with, but that it would be a bad idea to ignore.  It's like I've been driving along with the radio blasting and, now that I've turned it off, I can hear some troubling engine noises.  Better get the toolkit out and, if necessary, visit a mechanic before I rev up again and hit the radio switch.

I'll see the experiment through to the end, but - to be honest - it's the meditation that I'd like to explore further.  I found a photo with a W B Yeats quote the other day that summed up my feelings so far. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Days 20-23: Getting a feel for what's happening

As part of my prayer time, I've given God permission to change me, if that's what's needed for me to see him.  As far as I can tell, he's still a no show.

I have noticed two things though.

First, like anything in life, the more time and effort I put into my morning sessions, the more I get out of them.  Hardly a surprise.

Secondly, the prayer for revelation feels like the most pointless part of the session.  I say it as sincerely as I can, but it's the meditation afterwards that calms my mind for the day.  It's thinking about the good things in my life that brings home to me how lucky I am.  It is these earth-focused activities that anchor me in reality and seem to benefit me in my daily life.

I'm not committing to continue daily meditation once the 40 days are up: if I do that, it'll feel like a duty and a drudge - I know what I'm like!  Nevertheless, I like to think I won't immediately drop this habit.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Days 17-19: Down to earth

I've completed two big pieces of work and I gave my talk yesterday.  Oddly enough, my anxiety levels have fallen!  I still have a 2.5 hour talk to give in a week and a half, but that's a talk I do every year and just needs tweaking, so it isn't a worry.

I found it very hard to settle in prayer on days 17 and 18.  I was preoccupied with work and didn't want to reawaken the anger etc that I wrote about in my last post.

This morning, I prayed in Starbucks, over a soy cappuccino.  After praying, I looked out of the window.  The voice in my head said, "I am in the earth".

This unleashed a whole load of thoughts and memories: the time that voice told me to "love things for what they are instead of resenting them for what they're not"; the sense of peace I get from watching the world go by in its ultimately meaningless busyness; a story in which the Buddha agrees to bring a woman's son back to life if she can bring him a mustard seed from a house that has never known death.  She can't, of course, but she learns acceptance through the experience.

I don't believe I will find fulfilment by looking to something beyond this world.  I believe I will find it by living fully in this world, by appreciating and accepting it for what it is.  I don't want to denigrate it by thinking of it as some pale, corrupted imitation of the "real" world to come.  Our universe is awesome.  If all we are is stardust, that is more than majestic enough for me.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Days 14-16: Oh look, my latent anger is being all un-latent

The last few days have been difficult.  I continue to feel under the weather but have a shed-load of work to do, so I've been working from home when I'm not being sick or sleeping.  Mrs McGingersnap is wonderful when she's here but, alas, she works full-time and has yet to master the art of bi-location.  As a result, I've been feeling rather isolated.  I've also felt anxious: it's hard to work with a brain like ether-drenched cotton wool.  And I have to deliver a 2-hour talk on Thursday morning.  Yay!

I think the praying is stirring up old feelings too, mostly about evangelical Christian teaching on homosexuality.  That old chestnut "Hate the sin, love the sinner"?  To a young gay person, that sounds like "We'll love you even though you're repulsive - aren't we gracious?!"  If you tell a young person (a) that their love is perverted and disgusting and (b) that you can tell a tree by its fruits, it doesn't take much skill in deductive logic for that kid to work out that, hey, they're disgusting!  Cue: self-esteem in negative equity.

Churn out all the hair-splitting distinctions you want: there's a reason why so many LGBT youth from conservative religious backgrounds come to believe that they're worthless.

Do I believe I'm worthless?  No, but that's thanks to the love of a good woman and - let's be honest - one heck of a lot of therapy.  Furthermore, that doesn't mean I'm completely free of the consequences of my upbringing. 

While I've been praying these last few days, I've felt uneasy.  How much of that is because of what's happening in my life and how much because praying is associated with some painful memories and destructive beliefs, I don't know.  But that's what's been going on.  I'll probably have a good old word-dump in my personal diary to get this out of my system, but I'm not convinced that revisiting those feelings at this stage will have any therapeutic value.  It's just running electricity down neural pathways that need to dry up for good.