Thursday, January 14, 2016
Black and White Thinking after Exiting: Adventures in Ambiguity (Part I)
How can something be true and untrue at the same time?
Then I bolt off to college at sixteen, still very young and desperately searching for consistency in life. I didn't know who I was, really, but I could learn about reality around me. Well, imagine my dismay when my freshman chemistry professor says, "The Bohr atom isn't really real. It's only a theory." The nice and neat picture in my head of electron shells that encircle an atom were merely a statistical means of representing how matter behaves, but it is all theoretical. It's based on quantum theory, yet another theoretical science. I want my Bohr atom dream back!
Another example of this would come when I would learn the pathophysiology of a health problem which I would see played out in real life in the clinical area as a nurse. I spent much time learning the process of a disease, but I would quickly learn that no one person really conformed to that pattern. Textbook cases of anything are rare, and multiple health problems also make the clarity of a problem of interest more complicated. While the beauty of the proof that each person is remarkably unique, a part of me that sought assurance and consistency felt lost and helpless. I want the textbook example, not this messy, complicated one!
I had the same experience in my mid-twenties when I went to seminary, though this bitter realization seemed far worse. I thought that by studying the original language of the Bible that I would be better able to discern what it meant. Ironically, that study proved that the opposite was true. It opened up more possible interpretations, and I learned that to accomplish what I'd hoped to take away from the class, I could study nothing but ancient, dead languages for about a decade. Then, maybe, I could have an opinion about interpretation. I want those sure religious answers back!
Thinking in Black and White
One of the hardest things to learn after leaving the anti-intellectualism of high demand religion was the expectation that everything in life about people and behavior could be definitively categorized. Ethics seemed especially obvious to me, and I was taught that my own set of ethics (that which I liked) had to be fixed and true. But I was taught in so many ways to think only in black and white — and it was far beyond the cursory stages of problem solving — and it was painfully obvious when it came to subjective ideas about which I had no knowledge or experiences that I didn't share. Nursing gave me a foot up in this area, too, because nurses are taught to respect and support belief systems other than our own to help clients find their own way, to grow holistically, and to find their best place of wellness. Their experience of illness or wellness is not about me. It's about them.
When I left my heavy duty fundy background, I found myself wishing that there was some switch that I could flip to make myself more resilient. But like a wounded person who is recovering from a surgery and a healing wound, I didn't have the immediate capacity to be resilient. I had to work through trauma. I had to work to reprocess and revisit ideas to see if they were mine, someone else's, or whether they were ideas that I might not choose to keep. The process proved to be very intimidating. First, I'd given my life to a set of ideas, and some of those ideas were wrong. I'd labored to advance those ideas — often in practical ways in real life, not just in debates or in the ivory tower of a classroom.
I found that the process was exhausting. I had to think about each new situation as I realized that the simplified rules were often oversimplified, and so much about life was frustratingly more complicated than I'd been taught to admit. I had to learn how to function in the world and my world all over again, and all of my "helps" and shortcuts that helped me circumvent critical thought no longer worked. And that process of learning something new also frustrated me, and that reduced the energy I had for resilience with others.
Once I had some good (and bad) experiences under my belt, and after I found a place of safety, and after I had a chance to retrace my own journey a bit, I found it easier to allow my own perspective to stretch. My wounds had healed enough that I was able to see that my world was relatively small, and the greater world and those around me had perspectives about which I'd never dreamed. I thought that my experience thus far and my desire to be respectful and wise gave me a good vantage, but I soon realized that I was but a single grain of sand on the shore of a mighty sea. And that realization was quite painful. And though I could relate to some experiences that others had that were similar to my own, there were many things in my life that had no parallels to experiences that others had lived.
When you leave a high demand group, especially if you were raised in a group and only saw black and white ways of thinking modeled for you by others, one of the most painful and demanding processes is figuring out that the world is not black and white. Not one sick person fits the textbook presentation of an illness. Not one person who professes to hold to a religion lives it out well, and they might not even believe what is taught by that religion. You realize that people are illogical quite often. You realize how limited and vulnerable you are, especially amidst a world of ideas.
And I really started to hate myself, because I thought exactly like the group that I left. I realized that using the shortcuts shoved dynamic people in a box of expectation that perhaps someone else built for them, but it was one that I accepted by default. Even my pigeonholes of understanding everything had to be torn down and rebuilt. I'd been treated like an object, so the last thing that I wanted to do was treat others in the same, dehumanizing way that I'd been treated. And much of this came when I was brittle and sore and had little energy for stretching and growth. But reality and a desire to be true and ethical stretched me — though I didn't like it and though I felt as though I didn't have it in me to do.
Difficulty with Ambiguity
I felt relieved to learn that one of the traits that makes a person particularly vulnerable to cultic influence is difficulty with ambiguity. We'd like to think that knowledge and experience make everything clear for us so that we don't have to feel terribly vulnerable. To live, we must take risks, and connecting with others forces us to stretch our own perspective. Cults and totalistic ideas present a powerful appeal to those who are wrestling with change or even those who have exited the abuse of another closed, high demand system. We crave to know what is real and true because of the lies we were forced to live. We don't feel up to taking many risks.
Cults and dogmatic, intolerant systems of thought —even systems that purport to advance tolerance — give us a shortcut around ambiguity. It makes the world seem fixed and sure and predictable and simple when it is anything but! But when we leave, awash with feelings of betrayal because what was fixed was nebulous in reality, we crave clarity. And at the same time, we find it tiring and uncomfortable.
When we exit, we run the risk of developing or adopting a new, static, totalistic ideology that replaces our old one.
It's easier. And it's what we're used to doing already, amidst so much life change. It's one less thing that is new and one less thing that pushes us to work and to stretch.
There are no personality traits that make us vulnerable to cults, but young people who are striving to figure out who they are said to be especially vulnerable because of a natural discomfort with ambiguity.
Ideologies that offer simple answers and solutions to that which is complex can seem irresistible and perfect because they create the illusion that the world seem a little safer. (We don't want to learn that the world is unsafe.) It takes us some time to figure this out (usually years) that black and white thought and intolerance of that which is outside of our perspective has value —or that it is not a threat. Differences of opinion feel painful to us, primarily because we are still going through the pain of exiting and healing. Little to nothing is fixed, and there is no shortcut around ambiguity. Totalism makes for us a black and white "offer that we cannot refuse" at the time because of all that we face when we exit, and we crave the sense of safety that we lost. And people who challenge us can seem like our enemy because of our pain and our brittle state.
But hang in there. Let experience and other perspectives stretch your world. Embrace what is real as you question and challenge those pigeon holes in your head — especially if they are just the extreme opposite of a pigeonhole you abandoned. If people were turned into objects when the religious system shoved them in there, the polar opposite might very well do the very same thing. And that's the last thing we want to do to others, because we know how painful it can be.
Clark, J.G., Langone, M.D., Schecter, R.E., & Daly, R.C.B. (1981) Destructive Cult Conversion: theory, research & treatment. Massachusetts: American Family Foundation.