I remember the first time I got lost/separated from my mother at a grocery store. I think I was seven or eight years old? The world switched in a heartbeat from safe and familiar to alien and hostile. I was alone in a confusing landscape. I had never been in this situation before, completely isolated and unable to find my way back to safety. For all I knew, recovery from this disaster was impossible. I would spend the rest of my life alone. And at the mercy of uncaring passing forces.
Fortunately, it turned out things weren’t quite that dire.
The religion I was raised in (Jehovah’s Witnesses) is ideologically purist, and very insular. It is very important that Witnesses not have very many contacts with the outside world, as they will corrupt you. Ideally only those absolutely required to make a living. You should not have any friends who aren’t Witnesses, and limit your interaction with non-Witness family members. My extended family lived across the Atlantic, and I was a very shy and nerdy kid, so those were kinda my default anyway. I was lucky to have the one or two friends within the church that I did have. I was grateful to the church for forcing us together.
The religion also uses shunning as a control mechanism. It is frequently brought up in church meetings that anyone who is kicked out of the church must never have interaction with current members. Not even a phone call. Not even if they’re your son/daughter. This doesn’t actually happen very often in practice, because most people aren’t monsters, but I didn’t know that. I took ideas seriously, even as a child.
Every now and then at church we would be told of the Super Virtuous Mother who kicked her teenage kid out of the house and never even made eye-contact again, even when they were crying and begging outside windows of the family’s home. She, and other examples like her, were held up in glowing terms as shining examples of what we should all strive for, and everyone would nod and murmur in wonder at her great devotion, and clap in approval. Every now and then we would hear about how this family’s devotion would be rewarded by God, when the wayward child finally came back months or years later, humbly returning to the church with a renewed faith. A soul saved, a family reunited! Because they were strong, and never wavered in the exile.
This was horrifying, even as a believer. It got worse as I started to have doubts. It was the start of my tendencies to try to limit how much I care about others. They can’t control you if you don’t care about their love, right?
Dan Savage, sex-advice columnist, is often asked by young gay people how to deal with rabidly homophobic parents. The first step, of course, is to not be dependent on them. As long as they are in charge of whether you have protection from the elements and food to eat, they have a stranglehold on you. But the next step, the only step available for adult children who’ve already moved out, is to remove yourself from your parents’ life. To let them know that you are deserving of respect, and you WILL NOT sit idly by while they abuse you. You are under no obligation to sit there and take their hatred. You can simply leave. And you should.
Often, parents will eventually come around. Because generally, parents love their children, and miss them when they’re gone. They will moderate their views, and they will hold back their vile opinions when in your presence, because they know you won’t stand for it. Eventually, they often even change their minds entirely, and come to accept and love their children for who they are. As Dan says: As an adult, your only leverage over your parents is your presence in their lives.
This is wonderful advice. And it requires that you be more willing to cut someone out of your life than they are willing to cut you out of theirs. This sounds very familiar.
I dislike the way the world works. I dislike that we live in a gladiator universe, where the final arbiter is violence. I dislike that even if we were to eliminate physical violence, there is emotional violence that can still be inflicted. I don’t know how to compare the two, though I assume physical violence is far worse. But the shitty part about emotional violence is that, while physical violence can be used against anyone, emotional violence’s power is directly proportional to how much people care about you. The more someone loves you, the more you can hurt them.
The ultimate winning move is to weaponize your Self. Do whatever you can to get everyone to love you as much as possible. And simultaneously, you care for them as little as possible, so you are not vulnerable to their attacks. It’s gross. It feels like the subtext of every relationship one can have, though.
Maybe this is the result of having been raised to see love as a weapon, used to control those who love you… but I don’t want to have that sort of violent power over another person. Right now I’m hurting someone, and I hate it. I wish I could see some way to avoid this trap, because I don’t want to be alone either.