Thursday, November 30, 2017

Ask An Atheist: Managing Relationships With Religious Loved Ones

A couple of days ago, I received this private message from a friend:
Remember the part of your blog "Ask an Atheist"? We have a question. [My husband] and I are skeptical, but my daughter is a full blown atheist. How did you keep your deeply religious parents from torturing you? My mother is relentless and cruel! Help!
Not an easy question to tackle sensitively. Immediately three or four ways to respond popped into my head, and I asked if I could answer her question via blog post, since there was no way I'd be able to squeeze it all into a text. It's not officially National Ask An Atheist Day, but I'll answer the question regardless.

Finding a photo for this topic was tough, so here's a religious family.
The first thing I have to do is set an understanding. I did not come from a secular background. I wasn't raised to be an atheist. I was raised in the church, and I devoted the vast majority of my life to faith in Christ. For anyone reading this, it's important to know that I intimately understand the perspective of our religious family members. As a devout believer myself, I used to lie in bed at night and plead to God with all my strength that all three of my children would be saved. The possibility that any one of them might grow up to reject our faith was so overwhelming and terrifying to me, that those prayers were often wet with tears. The threat of hell was so real that I simply could not bear imagining it for my children. In fact, just the thought that any of them might not be saved was sheer agony; it made my chest ache with anguish and fear.

So understand that everything I say from here on comes from a place of personally knowing how some religious parents feel.

Notice I said "some parents", because this is not necessarily the sole reason parents (and other loved ones) can be so upset when children or grandchildren question or even reject the family faith. There are other reasons for negative reactions from religious family members, such as bringing shame on the family, feeling their "tribe" has been rejected, feeling they are being rebelled against, or even feeling judged for their beliefs by the unbelieving individual. I don't want to go too deeply into all the reasons believing family members might be so bothered by unbelieving ones, but if you want to analyze this topic more deeply, there are others who have explored this subject in greater depth.

Let me also add a disclaimer - not all believers hound unbelieving loved ones. Many are live-and-let-live or simply keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Some do not stress about hell or care about family pride or feel a person's rejection of their faith is a rejection of them. So for those people, this post isn't about them. They're doing it right already. Thank you.

So assuming that the push back we atheists, agnostics and skeptics receive is based on any of those reasons above, we automatically are at a disadvantage. If it comes from a place of fear for our souls, there is nothing we can do to take that fear away. If it comes from a place of shaming the family by not towing the line, we cannot take that embarrassment away. In a society where religion (particularly Christianity) is not just the norm but the expectation, the onus ends up being on us to manage and mitigate these negative feelings that our unbelief produces in our loved ones, because somehow we are the ones who have done something "wrong".

For me personally, my parents are deeply religious, but I'd never say they "torture" me or are "cruel" to me. They can, however, feel relentless. My parents genuinely believe I'm going to hell, and this is a source of extreme anguish for them. Once again, let me reiterate that I really do get it. Yet, as firmly as they know I'm going to hell, I just as firmly know that there is no such place. Therefore it feels like the responsibility of managing their emotions always falls on me, because I'm the one who isn't emotionally distressed. Having been on both sides of the matter, I can see it from their perspective. They, however, cannot see it from mine. In fact, never at all does it seem they stop to think how their relentless proselytizing might affect my emotions or our relationship, because they cannot see that far. They see only my eternity in hell, and that clouds out every other possible perspective. Therefore, it's up to me, who has been on both sides, to respond in one of two ways - I can either scoff at their constant attempts at drawing me back in or I can empathize with them. I always choose the latter, but believe me, it's not fun and it's not fair.

It's not fair, because it drives a wedge between us, every single time, and they can't see it. They can't see that every comment, every dig, every attempt at making me see it their way is another brick laid in the wall that separates us. Christians (and others) in general don't seem to see how much we nonbelievers are expected to consider their feelings first, show respect for their beliefs and walk on eggshells to avoid hurting or offending them, when none of that consideration or respect is given to us. For family members who are embarrassed by what we've done to their reputation, it might be even more difficult. It's one thing for me to empathize with their fear of my going to hell, but it's a lot harder to empathize with those who just wish we'd shut up and stop bruising the family pride. Every time we sense that their disapproval of us is based on the disapproval they receive (or perceive to receive) from others, another brick is laid in that wall between us.

Nevertheless, that's where most of us are, so what can we do to handle it?

I can only speak from experience, and my answers aren't great. They aren't all what I'd call healthy solutions, but in the lose-lose situation that many of us find ourselves in, we sometimes can only make do with the best options we have.

First, I avoid the subject like the plague. Normally, avoidance is not what I'd recommend, but in this case, if it's necessary to keep that wall from getting too tall or wide, I will hold my tongue. It pains me to keep feelings to myself and avoid honest discussions, but it pains me more to feel rejection, especially from the people I love the most. I hate superficiality, but I hate disapproval more. For in every "you need to come back to the Lord" or "God is trying to get your attention" or "you know, if you just turned to Jesus ...", what I hear is rejection and disapproval. I have to sort through those feelings each time to remember they are being said with some kind of good intentions (usually). That these kinds of comments inadvertently (or deliberately) imply a dismissal of my well-thought and hard-fought conclusions about the world is never, seemingly, a concern for the other party. But that's what they are, so to avoid facing their disapproval of my (lack of) beliefs, I resort to steering clear of the subject at all costs.

However, there are times when I have to put my foot down and ask them to stop. At the end of the day, I'm a grown-ass woman, and I do not have to be put down for what I believe or don't believe. (And neither should they, for that matter). There have been a small handful of times when the attacks have been out of order and beyond what I am willing to tolerate, and I've had to tell people to stop. If your religious family members are taking it to a level that you do not feel you (or your child) ought to be subjected to, then put your foot down and don't tolerate it anymore. If people are truly being relentless and cruel, you have every right to draw the line and set some boundaries. And you have every right to demand that the boundaries be respected. Trust me, this is also something I don't like to do. Talk about building a wall! But if a wall is needed to protect yourself, then build it.

If you're in a situation where open conversation is encouraged and you don't need to avoid the subject, then you are in an enviable situation. Where appropriate, openly discuss your differences in beliefs. Trying to get them to see things from your perspective might do wonders. A thought experiment I used to practice as a Christian was to put myself in the shoes of someone who believed something completely opposite to my beliefs in order to empathize with them as people who believed just as strongly in their faith as I believed in mine. I had ulterior motives of course; this is how I imagined trying to save the souls of people in other countries where I went on mission trips to. It was a good experiment though; to fully understand how to relate to people with different beliefs, I had to first understand that undervaluing, diminishing or dismissing their beliefs would only drive a wedge between us. If Christians and members of other faiths could first recognize that by dismissing or mischaracterizing atheists, agnostics and skeptics they are driving a wedge further between us, the lines of communication would open up so much wider and our relationships would be much more satisfying and meaningful.

I'll say it again though - it's almost always been my experience that in handling religious family members' feelings and remarks, it's up to us to be the relationship managers. Though we're put at a disadvantage, though we're the ones who have to defend our positions, though the burden of proof is placed on us, though our feelings aren't part of the equation, we are the ones who have to manage the conversations and relationships to keep them on a level we are comfortable and satisfied with. We have to decide when to speak and when to be silent, when to defend and when to ignore, and when and where we draw the lines. We have to decide how much empathy we extend and how much criticism we tolerate, and conversely, we have to decide when enough's enough and what we will not put up with.

I hate the way that previous paragraph sounds. It may come across as egregiously pompous and self-righteous to say that, but it is the truth. (Unless, of course, you are the one putting them on the defensive all the time, telling them that they are wrong and foolish, in which case stop or at least change tactics, because that's exactly what we don't want others doing to us.)

*To my friend specifically*

If your parents are being cruel to your daughter, then put a stop to it. If it comes to it, give them an ultimatum. Let them know that she has a right to her own beliefs and that you both as her parents will defend her autonomy. Furthermore, remind them that you have the right to question things also and they need to respect your autonomy as well. If their concerns come from a place of good intentions, acknowledge that you realize this and that you appreciate their concern but that hounding you or your daughter will only drive a wedge between you and hinder your relationship. If they truly want to see her or you return to their brand of the faith, they need to lay off and simply love you both unconditionally. If what they believe is true in the end, then it would be God, not them, that would convince you of it. The nagging, the condescension, the disapproval, even the well-intended remarks will not do it. They only strain the relationship, and I'm willing to assume that that is not what any of you want. Stay strong, my friend. And tell that daughter of yours I'm always looking for a babysitter.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

This Too Is Gonna Pass

"If you can keep it together, just keep it together, you're fine, 
because one way or another, for better or for worse, this too is gonna pass."
-Quiet Company "On Ex-Husbands & Wives"

I love holidays, all holidays. Despite how commercialized they've all become, they all give me a thrill, and I love celebrating them. All year long - Valentine's Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) - I look forward to participating in whatever traditional, cheesy festivities accompany each upcoming holiday.

This year, however, has been a year full of really hard holidays, for it was the first year of celebrating each holiday without a husband. 

I haven't talked much about my divorce here. For nearly the entirety of this blog's existence, it was Scott-and-Lori. Scott and I started dating only months after I started blogging in 2003, and he's been a main character ever since. Moving it away from was a weird transition, and I haven't really known where to go with it since. (Thus the "in flux" bit.) A lot has happened in our lives this year that didn't feel appropriate to share publicly, and especially not here, where our relationship has been hosted for its entire existence.

But it's been almost a year (in fact, it's been pretty much exactly a year since the break-up started, though it wasn't made public until a few months later) and at some point me and my blog have to move on.

Last year, Scott and I celebrated Christmas and New Year together, but by the end of January, Scott had moved out, and come February I was faced with my first annual holiday without him. 

This was my first Valentine's Day as a single woman in thirteen years. I tried to act grossed out by all the pink and red hearts and balloons and flowers splattered across every shopping center like a murdered cupid, but deep down it was a deeply painful season. Scott, knowing how much I love holidays, especially Valentine's, brought me flowers that afternoon, despite the rawness and ugliness of everything going on at the time. It was a gesture that foreshadowed the sensitivity and graciousness with which we would strive to handle this whole separation and divorce thing in the months (and presumably years) to come. 

We decided around Memorial Day that until further notice, we would just celebrate holidays together as a family, and that's how we've done it since. Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, and most recently Thanksgiving have all been shared with the kids and with each other. It's been the single most important thing for us that the kids feel secure and safe, and while there's always the risk of the kids harboring hope that we'll get back together, we feel keeping a close co-parenting, family-of-a-different-kind relationship has got to be better for them than separating our entire lives and never crossing paths with each other. We're still a family and always will be one. Just a different kind of family.

But of all the holidays we've survived this year, Christmas is without a doubt going to be the hardest. It's a time of year oozing with memories, mostly wonderful but now bittersweet at best. As has always been the tradition, I put up our Christmas tree yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, and not surprisingly, it produced a lot of emotions.

We don't have a "pretty" Christmas tree. We don't have matching baubles or sprigs of holly or fancy bows. We have a vast array of mismatched ornaments that each carry with them some kind of sentimental value. We have ornaments from our very first Christmas together, multiple "baby's first" ornaments, ornaments that were gifts from various loved ones, Lolly's birthday ornaments (with a birthday a week before Christmas, it became a tradition early on to give out ornaments as party favors every year) and the annual selections for each member of the family that we choose every year based on what the kids (and sometimes the grown-ups) are interested in. There are memories attached to just about every single thing we hang on the tree.

I knew decorating the tree this year was going to be difficult, so I braced myself for an onslaught of emotions when I opened the red plastic Christmas decorations tub. Even still, there was no way to be totally prepared for the intensity of feels that came with handling each ornament and recalling the associated memories. Perhaps the saddest one was the ornament labeled "McFarlanes 2016" - a gingerbread family with all of our names etched on them.

I remember receiving that gift last year (from my mother, I believe) and feeling a rush of regret - no one really knew what we were going through yet, and as I looked at this ornament, I recalled thinking how sad it was that quite possibly by next year we wouldn't be that family anymore. And sure enough, we aren't.

It's hard to explain the feelings that all of this year's holidays have brought, especially this season. How do I adequately explain all the mixed emotions that I've felt, especially when I barely understand them myself? 

It would be natural for one to assume that I wish my marriage hadn't fallen apart, but the truth is I don't feel our decision to end our marriage was wrong. I don't think Scott thinks so either. We don't long to be back together, but there is still this feeling of ... regret? failure? a dream lost? grief? 

We never intended our marriage to end this way. We thought we'd be together forever. We believed in marriage, we believed in everlasting love. To not achieve that goal feels like a massive failure. Furthermore, we have a family that we never intended to split up. Breaking up our family is the biggest failure I can conceive of committing. I look back on everything we did wrong and wonder if we could've done something sooner to salvage the relationship. But the reality is, people change. Neither of us are the same people we were when we said I Do. We did a good job of trying to grow together and change together, but in the end it wasn't enough. Calling it quits when we did meant we could go on as co-parents and friends, but it still feels like we failed. Honestly, it mostly feels like *I* failed. For the truth of the matter is, it was me that messed everything up and brought the marriage to its end. 

Yet for all the regrets and mistakes, I still believe we've made the right choice. I try not to speak for Scott anymore, but I think it's safe to say we're both happier now, even though there's still a lot of sadness too. Divorce causes a slough of emotions, both sad and happy. It would be an incomplete picture to only paint one part of that. So yes, this year has been a hard one for me. But the year has also been a good one. A really good one in many ways, while also being extremely painful in others. Blue skies and gray skies. How do you explain those mixed emotions and mixed experiences coherently? I'm still not sure I understand it myself.

Writing about it has been rather off-limits, even though the limits are mostly self-imposed. It's still raw sometimes, and I haven't felt comfortable publicly sharing things so deeply personal. Yet I love blogging, and while I've written many things for my own eyes only, not blogging about about the things that are most real in my life has felt like cutting off an appendage. So this coming year, while I will still probably keep many things to myself, I've decided it's time to allow myself to blog about my life again. It'll be difficult to sort through what is shareable and what is not, but at some point I've got to be able to move on and write again.

In the meantime, I've got one last holiday season to get through as a first time single woman and mother. With it will come tears and regrets just like with the other holidays, but this particular time of year will be harder than all the rest. What's comforting though is I'm not going through it alone. Scott and I may not be a couple anymore, but we are still a family, and we've committed to continue doing this life thing as friends. With the support of our families and friends, we will do just fine, even when life is at its hardest. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

What Does Diversity Bring to the Table?

I hate getting into arguments. As a middle child and a people pleaser, I try to steer conversations away from controversial topics if I sense they will get heated. I don't like offending people, and my empathy easily extends to those I both agree and disagree with. I will happily engage in lighthearted debate with friends, and with some people I'll even engage in earnest debates, if I know them well enough to be confident there will be no hard feelings. But with strangers or people who might get easily upset, I avoid hot topics like the plague.

This isn't always a positive thing. Sometimes it means I let things slide that I shouldn't. I often hear mildly racist, sexist or homophobic comments, and to avoid conflict, I perhaps keep my mouth shut too often. Especially in polite company, where I don't want to come off as argumentative. But the other night, after hearing someone (a rich white male) rhetorically and contemptuously ask, "What's the point of diversity? What does it bring to the table?", I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I launched into all the reasons why diversity is necessary, especially in my work with the Red Cross, where it is imperative that all communities are represented and no one is forgotten or overlooked. Surprisingly, but not so surprisingly, the conversation took an ugly turn at that point, and some of the most egregious racist and white privilege rhetoric was spewed, and needless to say the conversation did not end well. No regrets though. Sometimes arguments just can't and shouldn't be avoided.

So why is diversity important? For what I do, diversity is of utmost importance if we want to be sure we are accomplishing our mission to serve all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, income or geography.* That point was driven home to me in an illuminating way this morning in a meeting with the Arkansas State Independent Living Council (ARSILC).

The meeting had actually been arranged to discuss diversity and inclusion days before the aforementioned interaction. My goal for this meeting was, in retrospect, very narrow though. I wanted to talk about how to include more people with functional and access needs in workplace employment and volunteerism. But before my volunteer counterpart and I could even start talking about hiring practices, the executive director for ARSILC dove into the importance of creating an emergency preparedness action plan for people with disabilities. She began talking about all kinds of disabilities, from mobility needs to hearing and seeing impairment to developmental delays and autism. As she continued detailing all the ways in which existing disaster preparedness education could be developed to include those with disabilities, I became increasingly aware how narrow my perspective on people with "functional and access needs" really was.

For all my talk about diversity and inclusion - making sure diverse populations are being represented "at the table" so we can better serve all people - the thought of how we are serving those with disabilities never really came to my mind. Sure I'd gone so far as to consider and evaluate our hiring practices, but I hadn't actually thought about the people we serve during times of disaster - the adult with Down Syndrome who lives independently with the assistance of caregivers during a tornado or the children in wheelchairs or with hearing impairment when a smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night due to a house fire. How are we including those people in our plans and preparedness outreach? Have we brought The Pillowcase Project to the schools for the deaf and blind? What about Pathfinders? We do provide special smoke alarms for the hearing impaired, but have we made a targeted effort to make sure those who are deaf or hearing impaired know of this free service? Should we get hit with a huge disaster of Hurricane Harvey proportions (an earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, for instance), have we considered how people with disabilities fit into our emergency action plans? When food is air dropped into a disaster zone, have we thought about how the elderly or other people with mobility issues are going to get to access that food?

I am ashamed to admit that these thoughts had never crossed my mind. Surely they have crossed the minds of others within the organization, but from our every day practices locally, this has certainly not been a priority as far as I can tell.

And this is just one example of what diversity brings to the table. Having representatives from communities and populations that I and others like me have limited or no access to means we can make sure no one is being forgotten. A few months ago, I had a similar conversation with the owner of Hola! Arkansas on how we can better reach Hispanic and Spanish-speaking populations to make them more aware of our services and provide better disaster preparedness education to them. During my recent deployment in Florida, I worked with Spanish- and Creole-speaking populations where the need for bilingual volunteers became vividly apparent. Without exposure to and representation from people unlike ourselves, we can easily become entrenched in our own perspectives only. And in some industries more than others, that entrenchment can be detrimental and have very real life-altering consequences.

The most shocking thing that was said to me during that argument the other night was "And why do you care?" Being that I'd shaped the context of the argument around the mission of the Red Cross - providing humanitarian services, something surely everyone would agree upon - I was dumbfounded that this was even asked. I could barely conceive of an answer more basic than to reply, "Because they're people!" Diversity and inclusion aren't just trendy buzzwords. In my line of work especially, they don't just refer to hiring x number of black people, LGBT people and people of various religions (which by the way is a faulty understanding of affirmative action, which is not about "quotas", but that's another topic for another day). They refer to making sure all people have the same access to the life-saving preparedness education and disaster response services we provide. It's about caring for all human beings, no matter what they look like, where they come from or how they act. It's about basic humanitarianism, plain and simple.

Placing a focus on diversity and inclusion isn't about checking a politically correct box for us at the Red Cross; it's about literally saving lives. Even if there were nothing else diversity could "bring to the table", that alone would be enough. (Of course, that's not all that it brings - pulling together varied and colorful people from all walks of life and all backgrounds makes every company, organization and individual better and more successful, not to mention how profoundly it can enrich the lives of everyone involved.) I'm thankful that more and more people are starting to understand all the brilliant and illuminating things diversity brings to the table. And with those that don't see that yet, I guess I'll be engaging in more awkward conversations.

*The seven fundamental principles of the American Red Cross (and the International Committee of the Red Cross - ICRC) are perhaps what make me most proud of the organization I work for and how we pursue our mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. As an atheist in the Bible belt, I'm very passionate about impartiality and neutrality in particular! Maybe those are a subject of another blog post.