Throughout my coming out story, there’s a familiar thread of faith and the rejection of the narrative that faith original gave me. Within Let it Go, I described how I came to reject that narrative and the pain it caused. Then in Dusty Old Journals I described the struggle itself, wrought with my own words, people’s perception of who they thought I should be, and how other people tried to define my life. Finally, in To be Free, I tackled the harmful and painful narrative my childhood faith had projected onto my life and the resulting harm it had done to myself, my confidence, and my relationships with others. Today I want to discuss the concept of harmful narratives, why people may buy into them, and alternative narratives that do the least amount of harm.
Faith played an important role in my life. It had defined how I viewed myself and gave me a context in which to view the world and those around me. It provided a narrative for how I viewed our universe and the actions I’d take within my own life. That narrative, as I’ve shown in the above entries, had a profound impact on my life, a highly negative one. Even though I had to reject that narrative and the Christian faith’s role in my life, that doesn’t mean I gave up on the idea of spirituality altogether.
Aspects within that narrative, particularly within Jesus’s part of the narrative, appealed to me even during my darkest moments. The idea of a God that not just loved everyone but was in fact the very definition of love captured my imagination, and gave me a different narrative to explore. Humans, in general, are social creatures, and in order to form those social bonds, love may play a role, especially since people tend to stay with people who treat them with respect, dignity, and acceptance. In regards to myself, I’ve always preferred to seek relationships with others that was rooted in a mutual love and/or caring paradigm, where both of us felt validated, accepted, and nourished by actions and words that sought to uplift rather than harm. Thus the idea of a God that loved me as I am appealed to me, especially during the dark moments of my life where I felt unloved, hurt, and broken; however, I found that I could not engage with such an idea within the paradigm of the Christian community (as I explained in previous entries.)
This idea that God is love forced me to consider what exactly love is, and because of my background, I knew of few narratives outside of Christianity. The Christian narrative provided very differing views depending upon the sect and denomination of Christianity; some of those views tried to define it with verses within the Judeo-Christian Bible, but even these views could be derived more accurately not from the verses they claimed to use but from people’s words and actions. What some Christian sects described as love seemed incredibly harmful to me: the focus upon sins and the condemnation of those sins. This narrative claims that condemnation came from love, and it provided those who sinned a way to examine their life and rectify the problem, thus restoring their relationship with God to good-standing. Except by focusing on sins, the narrative then had to define what exactly counts as sins. Within the Christian community, a vast majority declared certain aspects of a person to be sins, but if this were true, then the condemnation focuses upon aspects of people that are often unchangeable, and if that aspect is unchangeable, the condemnation morphs into a fear or hatred of that group of people. According to this narrative, if a person was not straight and/or cisgender, then that person was considered to be in an unnatural state, trapped in a lifestyle of sin. This narrative caused direct harm, as studies have shown over the years, and those who lived with this narrative had much higher rates of suicide than those who did not have to live with that narrative. I can directly attest to higher levels of suicide thoughts in my own life during the years I lived within this harmful narrative.
This left me with the concept of love not causing harm. If love does no harm, then the above narrative could not be formed from love, because it resulted in direct harm to large groups of people. That particular one was in fact a false narrative, one contrived to further discriminate and harm those that do not fit the prescribed “norm” for that particular faith group. Often times, it acted as a litmus test to try to separate the true faithful from the sinners, and could only result in further segregation of groups of people. You can see the results of this at work in Arizona right now, where legislation passed that allow people to discriminate against LGBT people. The legislation argues that religious freedom means that people should have the right to ban LGBT people from frequenting their establishments and/or the right to deny them service. It’s roots lay in the faith narrative that claims certain aspects of a person as unnatural and thus sinful and/or an abomination in the eyes of those believers and their god. This law causes direct harm, and thus cannot have come from love.
Not everyone who bought into this narrative may realize the direct harm it causes. Because it is a deception, carefully crafted to give people the illusion that it comes from love, but if you examine it closely and seek those it targets, the harm it causes is unmistakable. Some people simply may not have had the opportunity to see the results of this narrative and the direct harm it has caused large swathes of people; the reasons as to why they may not realize this could range from simply not knowing anyone for whom the narrative attacks to never encountering anyone that directly challenges the narrative (some call this a sheltered lifestyle). If a person cannot see the harm the narrative causes, the person may not ever come to the conclusion that the narrative is harmful; instead, they may be trapped in the illusion the narrative offers: a black and white painting of the world, where the sinners are easy to identify and the route to helping them has ready-made answers. Such people may believe they act in love, but because they have not fully examined the narrative and its effects, they may not realize they are perpetuating harm. It is also possible that they may live in denial of this, simply because the thought that they have helped cause others harm provides a cognitive dissonance so great that their minds try to block it out or explain it away. Our brains tend to handle cognitive dissonance poorly to begin with, so this may influence the behaviors of those that encounter evidence or opinions that directly challenge core parts of their faith narrative.
The other possibility is that those who perpetuate the harmful narrative do so because they understand the consequences and the harm it brings and simply do not care. I have always been of the mind that people are naturally good. So I tend toward the stance that people are simply ignorant of the consequences of the harmful narrative, but there has been instances, especially amongst certain politicians and/or religious leaders, that seem to show that some people are fully aware of the consequences and the harm their narrative holds, and simply do not care or view those harmed as unworthy of their attention; such an attitude I find to be lacking in love and rooted in a far more nefarious emotion: hatred and/or resentment.
This is another problem harmful narratives cause. Over time, the more a person buys into a harmful narrative, the less likely love can take root in their hearts. Harmful narratives, which cannot be rooted in love, tend to be rooted instead in either resentment of a different group of people, a fear of that group, or hatred of that group. Because regardless of what the narrative says, it always originates within an emotion coupled with an idea, and from those two seeds, the narrative germinates and grows. By buying into a harmful narrative, its original source – regardless of whether its fear, resentment, or hatred — is what takes root in your heart. Love requires space, time, and energy, but if your heart is already filled with narratives rooted in those harmful sources, then there is little to no space for love to take root.
In my definition of love, love does no harm, but how does a person avoid harm? One way to do this is through cognitive empathy. Empathy is the act of placing yourself in another’s shoes to understand them as they are. To empathize with another, a bond of trust and understanding must be formed, where the goal is a positive social act, one that uplifts rather than denigrates. Empathy forces a person to examine the possible consequences an action or word may have on another person. This requires time, space, and cultivation to do well. If empathy is a core component of love, then love itself must require time, space, and cultivation as well. If a person’s heart tends toward a fearful, hateful, or resentful response, then the time and space empathy requires is absent because that space is taken up by the more harmful responses. Our reactions to others and the ideas we may encounter requires time and space into which our actions come into being; it is all too easy to fall back on habits and thoughts that dominate our life narrative, and if those habits and thoughts are rooted in a harmful narrative, then the resulting action may in turn become harmful. To react with love, a person would have to pause and seriously consider the consequences their actions may have on other people and upon themselves. Reacting with love seems to require more time and space than simply reacting with fear, resentment, or hatred. I think part of this is due to the problem of cognitive dissonance and our flight/fight instincts. When encountering discomfort (especially extreme discomfort), people tend to react instinctively to defend themselves and alleviate the discomfort as quickly as possible. Except empathy and love takes time, energy, and space, so reacting quickly to alleviate the discomfort may not give the person time to act with love. Instead, the instincts may tend toward a defensive response rooted in fear or resentment or even hatred, whichever of the three is most prevalent within that person’s life (or faith) narrative.
Another important point is as much as someone may wish to live a life of love and react only in a loving manner, it is impossible to act with love in every possible situation due to our imperfect natures. Our instincts are wired to react with either flight or fight in confrontations, and in order to overcome that base instinct, a person has to cognitively override the instinct. This takes energy and time to do so constructively. There are some situations where the time and energy required simply is not available to that person, and thus the instincts overrule the cognitive process temporarily. There are also many situations where there is time to override those instincts, and that is where a person can do the most good, where they can seek a loving narrative rather than perpetuating a harmful one.
Examining the narratives that instruct and influence your life and actions requires time, energy, and space. It also requires a person to admit when and if a narrative is harmful and turn their energies into adopting a more loving narrative; this requires again time, energy, and space. It also requires a person to override those base instincts to defend themselves and their beliefs, where they allow themselves to be open to examining the evidence that conflicts with their original dominant narrative. As humans, we often define ourselves by our beliefs, and any time a belief is questioned or shown to be in conflict with evidence within nature, science, experiences, and other people – this forces a person to either face this cognitive dissonance and allow themselves to openly question the belief, possibly changing it toward a different viewpoint, or they can reject the evidence and fall back to the instinctual response to defend their narrative (and/or ‘territory’) regardless of potential harmful consequences. However, there are times where defending one’s beliefs are imperative. These moments may be for those that hold evidence proving that a specific narrative is harmful; if so, then yes, they must defend their beliefs and evidence, because causing harm is not a loving action. There are also times where defending one’s beliefs may cause further harm, especially if those beliefs are already rooted in a harmful narrative; this is when the loving action requires the person to let go of that harmful narrative and consider a more loving one instead.
Doing the above is not easy to do. It will be painful and hard. Our minds are still wired in that instinct to defend; to fight or flee, and overriding it is a great challenge, but if we are to live a life of love, then we must examine the narratives that shape our lives and influences our actions. For everything we do and say has consequences. We do not live in a bubble; our actions and words ripple through the lives of others, for good or ill. Living a life of love requires a commitment to examining the narratives we encounter within society and within our own hearts and lives, and then rejecting the narratives that cause harm and are rooted in hatred, fear, or resentment.
That is the core of my beliefs: Love does no harm. I prefer a world where love is abundant, where people are treated with respect, dignity, and acceptance rather than hate, fear, or resentment. I have seen and experienced in my own life the effects that fear, hate, and resentment can cause, and I do not wish that upon others, because it is painful and damaging. I’d rather lift people up then to tear them down. And so, I came to the conclusion that I must try my best to seek loving narratives, so that my behaviors and words are rooted in love. This is why I must reject the narratives that cause harm, and why I ended up rejecting the majority of my childhood faith. I am not a perfect being, and thus I may fail at times, but I cannot give up this quest. I must continue to examine the narratives in my life, the narratives within our society, and my own reactions to others in order to try to act with love. In doing so, I hope I can lessen the harm inflicted upon others, and in turn provide others with hope and encouragement that yes, things can get better, and that yes, you are not alone and you are loved just as you are.
A love filled life is possible, but it involves a lot of work. Are you ready for such a commitment?