The Price of Freedom
“Freedom always comes with a price.” – C.S. Lewis
When I decided to leave the Watchtower organisation a year ago, I underestimated just how deeply the consequences of my actions would affect every aspect of my life. It’s been a year filled with highs and lows of emotions, and everything in between.
One of the lows is the deep sense of sadness over lost relationships with my loved ones who are still in the organisation. I met my best friend at a kingdom hall at the age of 12. We played with a skipping rope outside the kingdom hall in Austerville, South Africa, while the adults finished cleaning the hall. We studied the Bible together with a mature family friend as our Bible study conductor, whom we sometimes drove crazy with our giggles over silly things, as girls that age often do. We grew in the faith, engaging in the door-to-door ministry, Watchtower preparation for Sunday meetings and other wholesome activities. Her entire family practically adopted me, and so did the entire congregation. My own blood relatives (with whom my relationship was already precarious) were replaced with my new spiritual family as they were too ‘worldly’ to form real ties with.
When we got older, my best friend and I lived far from each other, but we always caught up at family functions, congregation get-togethers and, of course, the conventions. We talked about how we were doing spiritually, my occasional pioneering, the Bible studies I was conducting, her university studies and the guilt she sometimes felt for pursuing higher education. We also spoke about my kingdom hall building adventures; they were my favourite: visiting different cities and meeting different families who were strangers but brothers and sisters in the faith with whom we shared a common goal. The love and hospitality they extended to us always deepened my conviction that I was indeed in the one true religion.
All those bonds, all those experiences, all the memories we shared… all swiftly cut bluntly the minute I decided my conscience would not allow me to support this organisation, after finding out some disturbing truths about it. No explanations were required from me by my loved ones as the organisation paints all those who leave with the same brush; they have made themselves enemies of God, so, therefore, must be avoided at all costs. I don’t know what hurts most, the shunning or knowing that they may never know the real reasons why I left.
Although I mourn the lost relationships, I am constantly reminding myself that life goes on. Thankfully, the new relationships I have formed have opened up a whole new world of human relationships I never knew existed: love and compassion for others regardless of their beliefs, respect for other people’s views, empathy and understanding for those who have different lifestyles to my own, open and honest communication, seeing others as equals, and enjoying this journey called life together. I am truly blessed to have found such awesome people in my life who have not lived up to Watchtower’s negative description of ‘worldly’ people and have enriched my life in many ways!
From a young age, I came to realise how unfair life was. My first memory of a place called home was a 50 square meter tin shack in Orange Farm, South Africa, with a single workaholic mom for a parent. The hope of a paradise earth, in which all would have beautiful homes, delicious food to eat, and swim with dolphins, was all too appealing. I was absolutely certain about the future of the world and had an understanding of the world’s current events, something I believed to be a privilege only revealed to our special organisation. That knowledge not only made me swell with pride as a member, but it also motivated me to work harder in the organisation. Most of all, my religion gave me hope.
When I see injustices and human suffering now, I no longer have that rock solid certainty that I had before. Going from a state of knowing it all to a state of not knowing can make one feel disempowered, helpless and hopeless. It has taken me some time to humbly accept that I do not have all the answers. However, what I am certain of is the fact that I am here, we are here, sharing this wonderful home called earth, and it is within each and every person’s reach to make a difference in some way, using whatever talents have been bestowed upon them. That knowledge motivates me to be the best person I can be and to assist others whenever it’s within my reach.
I used to think being a good person was closely related to being religious and attending some meetings in a kingdom hall. This belief became deeply ingrained in me and became a natural part of my life. When I stopped attending meetings, I had some mild withdrawal symptoms; I suddenly had so much time on my hands and I felt guilty about that. Not belonging to a religion made me feel like I was a bad person. I felt my spiritual need would never be fulfilled without belonging to an organised religion. But now, I see things differently. I spend my time on activities I love, which makes me a happier person. I’ve met a lot of atheists who are morally upright and wonderful people, which, no doubt, proves that being religious is not a prerequisite for being a nice person. As far as not having a religion is concerned, I have come to see that religion is certainly not a prerequisite for being a spirituality-minded person. I do not need a congregation or a building to feel in touch with my spiritual side. All I have to do is go out in nature and my spiritual need is fulfilled.
Another issue that leaves me with a heavy feeling in my heart is the hope of the resurrection, which was a source of great comfort to me when my dear mother passed away. Now that I am no longer certain of that hope, as I am questioning everything that I was taught as a Witness, the very thought of the resurrection never becoming a reality makes me grieve in a different way. This is something that is still a huge struggle for me. That is a loss I still need to come to terms with.
Some of the highs have come from the so-called “cheap thrills of the world” – which, of course, were not the main reason I abandoned the religion, but have simply come about as a mere consequence of living life as ordinary people do. I marvel now and sometimes laugh cynically when I recall how some of these “cheap thrills” would have gotten me disfellowshipped or in some sort of trouble as a Witness: having friends who do not have the same beliefs as I do, regularly socialising with workmates outside of work, celebrating certain holidays, getting a tattoo, living with a male housemate, pursuing a career, investing in my hobbies, just to mention a few.
Of all the things I’ve lost, what I certainly do not miss is the pressure that is constantly being put on Witnesses to do more for the organisation. The question always lingered in the air about whether or not I was doing enough; the subliminal pressure that fellow Witnesses put on me, perhaps unknowingly, made matters worse. I also do not miss the fear of inadvertently disappointing or stumbling others, which fear caused me to live a restricted life in which I could never be my authentic self. This certainly caused a lot of anxiety and depression.
I must admit that I still have the occasional bout of depression since leaving the Watchtower. It usually stems from feeling misunderstood and lonely, missing my mom, anger that I’ve been robbed of a regular life, that I’ve wasted many years of my youth in a cult, feeling like a late bloomer among my peers who have so much more knowledge than I do on certain matters, especially matters of sexuality, not wanting to get too attached to people because, hey, once bitten twice shy.
When all seems murky and all these emotions overwhelm me, gratitude is my lifeline. Gratitude for the wonderful people in my life who make me feel loved and valued. Gratitude that I have the opportunity to start afresh in life and do all the things I wanted to do as a Witness but couldn’t, like pursue a career and my hobbies, without feeling like I’m doing something wrong. Gratitude for nature, which calms me and grounds me. Gratitude that I have me. I’ve learnt to be good to myself and to rely on myself. Most of all, I’m grateful that I’m finally free to me ME!
My freedom has come at a high cost, yes, but I am ever so grateful that my eyes were opened, I was set free; and now… the possibilities are endless.
(The original article appeared on the authour’s personal blog: Autumn Child)