Last week someone phoned me up and asked if I would play the organ in the village church this morning.
It’s been ages since I last did this. I used to play in the village church most weeks, or sing in the choir. I’ve always been to church, on and off, starting from the time when I used to attend an evangelical church with my family.
Last year I stopped going. I left because being in a church no longer made me feel good but instead made me feel tight, sad and angry. It was sad losing that part of me, because there had been lots of times when I’d felt lonely or empty, when being part of a church helped. I had always been a person who wanted to believe. Wanting to believe was what took me through the motions of it, as if being the shape of someone who believed and took part in church life would make it true inside me. It was more than a defence against loneliness. It was a replacement for the feeling I’d had as a child that any real person might want to be with me, or find me good enough. In the absence of this, I wanted to be absolutely wanted, to find out absolutely how to be good.
I held on for a long time to the idea that if I were good enough, then I would be rewarded. If I could make sure everyone was pleased, I would be happy not because of this, but because I was a person who deserved to be happy.
Of course, not only is this completely illogical, but the opposite is true. Striving to be ultra good sets you apart from other people, and stops you from forming proper relationships. This, of course, is what evangelical Christian churches (such as the one I grew up in) encourage – the idea that your religion sets you apart from humanity (apart from those who believe the same as you), and that this is something you have to bear…
Anyway, after I’d decided that, it wasn’t even a question of wanting to believe or not. I just couldn’t bear to be there any more. I was so sad and angry with myself that I’d wasted such a lot of time trying to be something so narrow that I had stopped living. I thought the tight, angry feeling might have gone away but I realised this morning that it hadn’t, so I probably shouldn’t play the organ again.
There’s definitely something in feeling unwanted that makes people eager to find some structure that will show them that they are good enough. For a start, looking at the teenagers who used to go to church alongside me, for many of them it seemed that religion was a reaction to feeling unwanted. In the biography I am currently reading, Kathryn Hughes describes an early, evangelical phase of George Eliot’s life, when she was attempting to come to terms with the fact that her mother had never shown any interest in her. Also, there’s my sister.
My sister works for a missionary society. I have found her difficult to get on with for a long time and it’s much worse now my views on religion have changed. I realise even more how she judges others’ motives and relationships from a “godly” point of view, and how she sees herself as a person with immense wisdom and responsibility because of her views. For some reason, it’s a lot worse when it’s your family. I don’t think I’d mind if it were an acquaintance or a friend, but I still identify so closely with the fear and insecurity about the outside world that feeds the need elevate your point of view above others, and it fills me with horror that I might ever have come across in the way she comes across. I suppose too there is a sense of loss too, that despite the difficulties we shared in childhood, I will probably never have an open, supportive relationship with my sister because there is this barrier between us, of things that I can’t take into her world because she has chosen not identify with them.
There are many things that I still hold onto, like the idea of forgiveness. I also like the idea that everyone is given gifts and that people aren’t better than each other because they have more gifts, but everyone has different gifts. And I do miss the sense of spirituality I used to feel. One day, when I feel less raw, I would like to find a way back to the place where I last felt contentment.
But I really don’t miss the obligation to be good.