I was 9 years old when my big brother and I knelt on the living room floor and ripped open the large, beautifully wrapped Super Nintendo my parents got us for Christmas. We played that thing constantly. For me, it was another escape from a warm, but lonely and frustrating youth. Meaningful purpose and enthusiasm for life’s adventures felt out of reach, but in these moments, I felt normal.
Many years later, I stood in that same living room in front of both my parents. The feeling of the space had changed. With my arms wrapped tightly around my dad, he coiled back and put his hands firmly on my shoulders. I can still feel them there now, cold and unaffectionate. His stoic eyes pierced through my tears as he made this new reality clear to me: We would probably never see each other again, but they’d always be there should I decide to return to the only place I belonged – my church.
I told them I loved them, and I walked out of my childhood home forever.
This is about my life. I was raised by two loving, hopeful parents who came to value a sermon over a son. They were my entire world. It’s about overcoming my greatest fear of surrendering my world by finding the courage to build a better one. It’s about the danger of this thing called groupthink – the corruption of critical thinking by replacing it with the thinking of the tribe.
To be clear, this is definitely not about losing. This is about becoming.
I was just 6 when my dad left the Army and moved my mom, brother and me to a small town in Texas. He didn’t leave a good career to move us closer to family, for a better job opportunity, great schools, or even to-die-for weather and scenery; virtually none of that existed there. What did attract my father to this town was an unflattering little church, led by a man who claimed to have an extremely unique skill of acquiring and delivering Biblical truth.
For years before the move, the church that would overshadow the next 25 years of my life was already tightening its grip on my father. New ideas he was learning from afar had been infiltrating our home long before I even started grade school.
There was no real insistence on discovery so long as it could it could threaten the unquestionable framework of belief defined by our church.
Often, what I would learn at school or see on TV was either measured against the words spoken from our church’s pastor or against one of our household conspiracy theories flouted by radicals. Looking back, it feels like nothing I thought I knew about how the world works and why people are the way they are was uncorrupted.
It’s all bad. They’re all bad. And we have God’s protection and all the answers – right here.
I always wondered why more people weren’t in our church with us, considering we seemed to have a monopoly on the truth.
“That’s their fault. They don’t want it enough, and if they did, God would make sure they found us.” This, as I remember it, was the lament of my elders.
After years into my adulthood of pushing down exceptionally important questions and ignoring the fact that nothing made sense to me anymore, I gathered the courage to walk into my parents’ home and tell them I was leaving to find a different church.
I knew what leaving meant. I had known my entire life – I watched it happen to others. I had hopes of making them understand and appreciate at least some of the many reasons why I was leaving and thought maybe I could give them something convincing to chew on, but I failed. I left more alone than I had ever been.
Although one of my dad’s parting messages to me when I left was that he had been preparing for our split my entire life, I have difficulty accepting that. I felt deep, unconditional affection for my parents, but the mutuality of that affection was sabotaged by seething dogmatic authority emanating from our church’s pulpit.
Matthew 10:35-36: For I came to turn a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be the members of his household.
Most churches aren’t faithful to the simplistic interpretations of verses like these. Leaving your church wouldn’t typically result in being shunned by your entire family and network of friends. But, for so many reasons, this wasn’t a typical church, and I didn’t leave for typical reasons.
Typical churches don’t tell their members that this is the only church they should ever go to, literally putting an end to any dream of living somewhere else. Our pastor even taught that reading the bible yourself for interpretation is futile and morally wrong, as he was the only person who could interpret it for us.
Typical churches don’t schedule five lessons per week – that’s right, five – and then have the audacity to tell their members that it is morally wrong to miss without having one of an extremely narrow set of bonafide excuses (such as inescapable work or being virally ill). We were told that being there should be “more important than the air we breathed.” I dare someone to trade oxygen for church.
Typical churches don’t advise their members against keeping company with outsiders while relentlessly declaring, “You will never change evil, evil will only change you!” This cast a suspicious cloud on outsiders for much of my young life. As a result, I didn’t learn to develop meaningful friendships with people my own age until well into adulthood.
Typical churches don’t hoard food and convince their members to plunder their savings accounts so they can build residential compounds in the middle of nowhere – just in case Y2K or some other end-of-the-world hysteria wreaks havoc the way doomsday preppers fantasize about. I spent a good number of my days in high school wielding a hammer to help build what I was expected to believe would probably become my home soon, a small tool shed turned into a makeshift house for when the world would run mad.
Typical churches don’t talk about Rapture prophecies being just around the corner so often that developing long-term goals becomes an unprofitable and depressing waste of time. For as long as I can remember, I grew up thinking I’d never graduate high school or college, find a career, get married or have kids. I did all of them.
Typical churches don’t tell you to cut someone out of your life the second they decide to leave to find something more fulfilling, placing the importance of their beliefs over the importance of family, dreams and the pursuit of meaning. The way my mother and father kicked me out of their life. The way my brother blocked me on social media without even asking why I left. The way my life-long friends immediately pretended I never even existed.
Yet here I am, existing.
And there they are.
Unfortunately, they’ll likely stay there in their intolerable tribe, truthfully unaware there’s a better way. They’re good people. I believe they’re just stuck, hopelessly unable to see through the cloud of lies that surround them.
leaving the herd
why do we get stuck?
The burden of peeling back the layers of tribal thought is incredibly hard to do. It can even be considered immoral, because our morals are often defined by our tribes. We end up caught in an endless circle of influence and consequence. Manipulated into delusion.
Our tribes are like sealed chambers. New thinking doesn’t get in or out. Bias reigns, working to keep us from thinking our way to freedom.
Every time I began to feel frustration with my church, deeply ingrained fear struck rational thought down. I knew I would lose family, friends and other things I held dear. Fear of love lost, of starting over, and maybe the greatest fear, the loss of pride, suffocates the desire to search for new ideas.
I only overcame this because my hopes and dreams – especially for my daughter – eclipsed all of those great fears. I began to let questions that had festered under the surface for years become important enough that they demanded answers. The answers all pointed in the same direction – out.
Your herd might be church, family, a group of friends, a political party, or just about anything where a group of like-minded people share some common interests and goals. If rational thought isn’t constantly celebrated in the community, admired and sought after, then thinking for yourself will trigger fear every single time. My church was severe, but we are all in communities that do this, at least to some degree.
the way out
I suggest we frequently ask ourselves, “Could I be wrong?”
If you aren’t asking yourself if you might be wrong, especially about beliefs that are opposed by a significant number of educated people, then you have no better than a 50% chance of being right. You’re rolling the dice because you have no idea what it takes to be certain. You’re just a reflection of your tribe. A member of the herd, aimlessly taking the path others lay out before you.
Conversely, if you are asking these questions, how those in your tribe react to them is a crucial indicator of their value of truth. Healthy tribes want to improve, and they welcome rational thinking and discussion. They’ll want the answer, too. Tribes that don’t value it might become angry, dismissive or they’ll repeat phoned-in defenses you’ve heard thousands of times before.
Asking tough questions is admittedly harder than it sounds. For the experiment to matter, it requires commitment to all the consequences of the answers you find. I wrote this very personal essay because I want you to know how necessary it is. It can hurt, but the hurt is eclipsed by an incredible magnitude of better, more healthy thinking.
I wrote this because I’ve been sadly uninspired by and filled with grief about the division in my country, and going through a little hurt might be necessary for us to find greener pastures. I wrote this because I want you to know that even brainwashed, lost souls like mine can find light. I want you to know that the people you’ve lost hope for still have hope, and that we are all victims of this often-dangerous groupthink.
I wrote this because I want us all to do better – because we can do better.
I want people to feel shaken like I felt the night I left my parents’ house for the last time and drove home to my wife and daughter. I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and imagination. But when the blur quickly passed, I grew stronger because I didn’t ignore and run from that feeling. I embraced it. I let the feebleness of my worldview give way and watched it crash down around me. It was terrifying, but oddly satisfying. When the dust settled and there were no tribes judging me and demanding my obedience to their way of thinking, I discovered new ideas and new beliefs about the world. I found new people, supportive and celebrating rational thought. I found myself.
I want that for everyone, because at the very core of our hate for each other is an inability to break from groupthink and think for ourselves. At the very core of that core, is fear.
And fear – just isn’t working.
this is what I’m hoping you’ll do
Take your strongly held beliefs and convictions about the world and, for a moment, loosen your grip on them. Ask questions about them. Where are they derived from? Why do you believe them? What might life be like without them? Talk about them with others who disagree, and kindly challenge each other. Consider that you might be wrong and be prepared to learn new things. The world is a competitive marketplace of ideas, and every idea must be reliably tested.
One of two wonderful things will happen:
- Our convictions will weaken as we discover better, more tested ideas. This is wonderful because it allows us to grow.
- Our convictions will strengthen as we discover that other ideas did not stand up to ours. This is wonderful because it allows others to grow!
This is how we conquer bad ideas and fears of progress. This is how we grow together, something we all desperately need right now.
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Great writing Stephen. Brought back much emotion for me. Perhaps too much anger but these stories help put feelings in perspective. Love you buddy!
Thank you Rob. Love you too and appreciate the feedback.