I grew up in an Evangelical Christian home. When I was 5 years old, the church showed us a movie about End Times that really impacted me. There were things like fire and brimstone, the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, Armageddon and decapitation. The images terrified me, so much so that I went home and immediately got "saved" (e.g., became a Christian). But the fear never went away. I remember, as a small child, spending sleepless nights worrying about my unsaved relatives. I could picture them either burning in hell or being decapitated. One night, I remember waking my parents up late at night and telling them my worry. They tried to make me feel better, but the bottom line was that I was right. My uncle was not saved, so he was going to hell. I asked why he would refuse to get saved. They couldn't tell me. We stayed up and talked about it for hours. I was so worried that I couldn't sleep. Finally, they decided to let me make a long-distance call to my uncle to tell him I was worried for his soul. It was a pretty traumatic experience for a little boy.
Now I'm in my early 30s and my beliefs have drastically changed. After high school, I went away to college and was exposed to many different people, beliefs and ways of thinking. Right now, my beliefs are starkly different from my parents'. I no longer believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and do not subscribe to any organized religion.
There was a time when this caused tension between my folks and me. But we have gotten past that stage and are now very close. The problem is that I still get this weird feeling every time a family member mentions the End Times. It's like a tightness in my chest. Is it guilt? Is there a part of me that is really worried that I'll spend eternity in hell? I don't know.
All I know is that I can't get over it. And it's starting to really bother me. I tried to think about why it is bothering me and I think it's because I feel like I will never be fully accepted by them. No matter what, they will always want me to rededicate my life to Christ. It is who they are. It is how they fervently believe.
I have to admit, this makes me a little upset. I mean, I accept them for who they are. I don't judge them for being Evangelical Christians. Why can't they reciprocate?
But, honestly, I can't be too mad. At its core, their non-acceptance is rooted in love. They believe that I am going to hell if I don't change my ways, so they can never fully accept me. If they quit praying for me and fully accept me for who I am, they will be resigned to the fact that their son is going to spend eternity in hell. This would mean that they are not only failing as parents but also as Christians. So, what should I do? Should I talk to them and tell them how I feel? Should I accept the fact that they will never fully accept me? I'd appreciate any advice you can give.
John the (Former) Baptist
Let's start with the trauma you experienced as a young boy. Your church, which you trusted as a child trusts his own parents, showed you a lurid B movie laughable by adult standards but vividly primitive enough to instill mortal terror in a 5-year-old. You were too young to know that what you saw on the screen was a clumsy but effective cinematic production. You took it as the literal truth, and it literally scared the bejesus out of you.
The traumatizing movie you saw as a child is only one of many, many traumatizing visions a child of the modern era might see. Think of a child walking through a Polish street littered with murdered Jews; think of corpses piled and burning; think of Mexican drug cartels and their ingenious tortures. But some terrors are perceived as perpetrated on us by outsiders, while others are perceived as perpetrated on us by people who are supposed to protect us.
When we are traumatized by those we love and trust, we are placed in a bind. We cannot lash out at our "protectors"; nor can we allow ourselves to be annihilated. So as children we find a space within ourselves in which to hold our secret trauma in abeyance like a radioactive substance, carrying it sometimes for decades until we can figure out what to do with it. We fear to open its container lest it leap out and destroy us.
A secular education has given you the intellectual tools to analyze the belief system you were indoctrinated with and see that much of what you were told does not appear to be true. And you can see, intellectually, that what happened to you as a child was in fact traumatic.
And yet the traumatic conditioning was so effective that when someone says "End Times," you are defenseless against the return of those old responses. Your chest tightens and you feel that old fear of annihilation and torture. It is as though that trauma you have carried so carefully in its sealed container occasionally hears its name spoken and tries to wriggle free.
In recovering from such a powerful early experience, we find that education and intellectual understanding are often not enough. They cannot undo traumatic conditioning. What is required is the emotional relearning that takes place in psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, 12-step programs, somatic therapy, neuro-linguistic programming and the like.
We may struggle for years to cure such traumas by thinking. Meanwhile we live like two separate beings, one responding with animal verve to all the threats and lures that swarm about our streets and doorways, the other supposedly "higher" being bemused by its own inexplicable responses to stimuli: Why the sudden tightening in my chest at the mention of End Times?
The astounding fact remains that we cannot think our way out of such conditioning; we must enter the realm of the traumatized animal and reexperience its mortal, existential terror -- that terror you felt as a child. This can be brutally emotional, bringing you in touch with the fear of obliteration. It can also be enlightening in both connotations: bringing light and relieving weight.
It's up to you, of course, how you approach this. I myself have had good results working with a therapist in guided visualizations. What you might do, under the guidance of a skilled therapist, is to again approach that traumatic moment, this time not as a child but as you, the strong and settled adult of today, with all your understanding and knowledge, to protect that boy, to hover over him with your body, to allow him to speak, to reassure him, to tell him that these images are just another kind of toy, no more threatening than the plastic trucks and dinosaurs littering the floor of his bedroom.
Guided visualization is just one technique. Modern science has many methods for freeing adults from the effects of early trauma. I suggest you look into all available treatments.
You are also hurt today by the feeling that because of your differing beliefs, your parents do not accept you. I think it is true that your parents do not accept you, and so I suggest that you accept their rejection of you in whatever form in seems to take. Accept it. Let it be real to you. Do not doubt it. Do not struggle in vain to reconcile your irreconcilable belief systems. If you feel rejected, accept that. Mourn what you never truly had. Mourn it. Feel it. See what is really there: your own life. You are an independent adult: responsible, alone, modern, secular; charged with making the best life you can for yourself.
As you accept their rejection of you, so you can accept your parents as flawed and frightened creatures. Far from being your all-powerful protectors, they are as ignorant about how to live life as you and I are. Accept them. In the same gesture, refuse to be the victim of their rejection. Their rejection has nothing to do with you. It is their own attempt to deny the truth of their condition, which in its mortal outlines is no different from our condition. We are all condemned to live in a universe we don't understand.
Your parents may also have been traumatized as children, indoctrinated through terror. But unlike you they never had the intellectual awakening to see that their faith springs not from insight but from fear. So they are trapped in a belief system. You cannot disabuse them of this belief system.
Yet their belief system is also a choice. That is the truly terrifying thing -- that, to be brutally honest, in some sense they have chosen to be saved themselves and consign you to hell rather than risk entertaining the kind of doubt that you have entertained. Rather than fully engage you in your intellectual inquiry, which would put at risk their position of absolute safety, they stay where they are and consign you to hell. In this very real sense, you have been rejected by your parents.
But then we are all rejected by our parents.
Let me tell you something strange and startling before we finish up here. Shortly after my mother died I was stretching on the exercise mat at the gym, and I saw in my mind's eye the vivid image of a giant vaginal hole. I swear, as I sat there, I experienced the memory of violent expulsion, as though I'd been shot out of a cannon. This was, I assume, a memory of birth trauma, and with it I felt my anger and disappointment at having been rejected by my mother, literally and for all time, rejected from her place of safety and warmth and forced to live in this world.
We are all violently rejected into this world. There is no other way to get here. Likewise, once here, we must reject our parents and get on with things. So let your parents go. The salvation they offer is not for you. To accept it would mean, oddly enough, that you martyr yourself for your parents. They do not need you to do that for them. They already have their Christ.
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