I had no clue / I'd be the boy who / your momma warned you about - Turnpike Troubadours
People in my life these days forget sometimes how volatile my psychology was for a good stretch of time. People in my life back in those days went many different ways in their response--ghosting me, learning about my challenges & illness, giving me a pass. The most dramatic response was when I was "cancelled," after it was publicly revealed, a couple years after the fact via a now-unpublished online essay, that I physically & emotionally assaulted my girlfriend during a psychotic episode. I was publicly shamed by & shunned from the poetry community that I loved dearly. I lost teaching opportunities & loved ones & book deals & whatever semblance of stability I was clinging to. And you know what? Maybe I deserved it, maybe I was a danger, maybe my actions made me unfit for those roles & relationships.
Recently someone I met on a dating app cancelled our planned date due to hearing from a "mutual friend" what happened with that ex-girlfriend back then. At this point, if someone wants to make final judgements on me based on something that happened 7 years ago during a psychotic break, I can accept that, as it probably says more about their values & journey than it does about where I am at. The thing those continued detractors don't understand though is that my story didn't stop 7 years ago; it is mid-telling today as I continue to learn to manage my disorder, seek forgiveness for the harm I've caused, & use this very ongoing story as a learning opportunity for how we view & treat mental illness.
Through the last year or so, I've been trying each month to tweak my mindset, routine, & lifestyle to better support the management of my illness & to ultimately extend my capabilities as a rational, caring human being. Early on, it was developing a mindfulness practice & recommitting to the local disc golf community. Lately, it has been developing a better relationship to what I put in my body, namely quitting drinking alcohol & practicing an every-three-hours small meal "diet." I'm also currently in the process of getting back into the classroom as an educator.
As someone who craves collaboration & connection, I think the next step that I am ready for is exploring possible romantic relationships. I stumbled in late 2020 / early 2021 trying to date, for two major reasons. Mostly, I hadn't adequately processed losing my ex-wife--how & why she left, the lack of closure her disappearance caused, the nagging feeling I likely won't find anyone more compatible & enchanting. Also, I wasn't quite yet confident in sharing my shaky past & the reality of my illness with new folks.
Through therapy & through this blog, I've sifted through both of those necessary hurdles, & I feel like I'm ready to share my full self with someone else again. As the earlier example shows though, my past will inevitably be a stumbling block for some folks. In practicing telling my story, honestly & vulnerably, I hope to find people who are open-minded to the nuance of mental illness & judge for themselves through actually current experience with me, not passed-along stories or others' previous perspectives. I promise to be forthright, probably within the first couple dates, about my illness, its possible problems, & my historical episodes. I also hope to be confident in my current iteration of self, one neck-deep in self-care & illness management.
For me, I grew because of graceful accountability, knowledgeable guidance, & added presence from loved ones; I got better because I was provided opportunities for meaningful work & safe collaboration. I didn't get better because I was shamed, threatened, or shunned; in fact, those measures, in many ways, pulled me from resources & motivations, even slowing & derailing progress at times. I worry that our dualistic, simplistic thinking on these very complex situations robs us of beautiful stories of redemption & healing, as well as keeps us away from much true progress, both in ourselves & others. In dating again, I hope to invite others into this wider perspective & understanding, knowing that the good / right ones will be willing & able to stare into that particular flame.
I noticed recently that a lot of people around here, even some that know me well, talk to me as if I believe exactly like them, especially when it comes to Christianity. Where I live (Elwood, IN), like much of the Midwest, is steeped in a conservative fundamentalism that treats god as some dictator sending down punishments & rewards in response to his subjects' behaviors. Many folks I know, even some more progressive or educated types, are bogged down & often seemingly confused by this antiquated system governing morality, & in interactions with others, because it is often the case, they assume the other has the same strange foundation.
I think that impulse, to assume your conversation partner believes parallel to you, is a natural default setting, but certainly one that could use some revisiting, a spitshine. Isn't a more productive & open-hearted method of approaching people one that leads with curiosity & diversity? I find much joy & growth opportunity in witnessing & unpacking, in collaboration, what others are thinking, experiencing, & witnessing in their own right. Unfortunately, our American society is on this fast track to conflict, where differences seem synonymous with antagonism.
To be clear, I am an atheist, have been since I was fourteen, but more importantly, I am continuing to grow as a secular humanist, believing humanity is both the key and the lock in regards to morality, ethics, & progress. While my journey to "there is not god" (or at least, not one that has been presented to the world thus far) was a short & obvious one, my understanding of humanity--what it is here for, how to interact with it, what to value, etc.--has been a rollercoaster, especially as I navigate the mood swings & anger attacks of my bipolar disorder, as well as the consequences of those mental health struggles, in my day-to-day life.
I say all of this not to chest-puff or initiate some conflict, but as a reminder to us all, myself included, that the folks we intersect daily are all carrying different belief systems & the baggage that comes with it. I, for one, want to learn from others & for others to learn from me, so that we might meet again with better mutual understanding & a more whittled set of impulses & reasons the next time around.
As someone who was married to a Episcopalian chaplain, who lived at a Christian seminary for three years, who has had the pleasure of knowing folks practicing many variations of faith, I have progressed from an angry atheist, a firm black/white viewer, to someone who is able to hold the "there is no god" belief while also remaining curious in others' perceptions of belief. I think what it has really done is to broaden my concern, leading me to ponder, "Why have people invested so much time, energy, & resources over the millenia into create hundreds of religions & thousands of gods?"
This is where we can all re-meet: the concerns of humanity. It goes back to the basic existential questions of life--How did we get here? What do we do while we're here? Where do we go when we're dead? The point of life for me is rooted in the well-being of conscious creatures, the end. I don't need a higher power to tell me to treat people well, not murder, take care of myself, etc. I don't need a religion to give me purpose or something to do.
There is this irrational concern in Christians about the possible moral chaos without god that I believe stems not from any actual interaction with god or the supposed teachings of a particular faith, but rather from a distrust & disconnect from both the self & from humanity at large. You see it in the questions I've been asked over & over again when Christians find out I'm an atheist: "How do you know what your purpose in life is?" "Where do you get your "rules" from?" "What keeps you from raping & murdering?"
Just because existence is "random" or finite doesn't inherently mean it is purposeless, boundary-less. Even without a ruler, we are governed by ourselves, the moral intuitions & proven concepts of ethics & reason. Like Ricky Gervais's quote above implies, that very fleetingness injects existence with real meaning & urgency. One might see that as discomforting at first, but I think it's one of the most enlivening aspects of being here, no raping or murdering necessary.