You know that feeling you get when you’ve just come out of the dentist’s? You’ve revealed the worst to the dentist, and in return you got a look of mild rebuke, a scale and polish and a lecture about flossing regularly. And when that is done, you step out into the light with your teeth feeling unimaginably smooth and perfect, in a way you’d forgotten was even possible. You run your tongue over them, and they feel flawless, and you imagine your smile glinting like a movie star’s. You know that feeling?
The spiritual equivalent of that feeling is walking out of confession when you’ve been brought up a Roman Catholic and believe every word. You revealed your sins to the priest, and you got a look of mild rebuke, some prayers to say as penance, and a lecture about trying to never sin again. And when that is done, you step out into the light with your soul feeling unimaginably smooth and perfect in a way you’d forgotten was even possible. You examine your conscience, and it feels flawless, and you imagine how breezily you’d be waved into heaven if the number 73 bus knocked you down where you stood right this second.
I was raised a Roman Catholic, and raised to believe without question. I did, of course; you don’t really have much choice as a child when every adult around tells you that the only alternative is eternal damnation. And it has its attractions, not least the self-righteousness that comes from believing that you have been born and raised into the one true religion. “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen,” we would dully chant every Sunday, feeling a little resentful of the lucky kids playing outside but full of joy that the wages of playing on Sunday mornings was death, and that they’d be laughing on the other side of their faces when they were skewered on a pitchfork and going into their third millennium over Satan’s own roast n’grill.
As a Catholic, in one hand you had the shield of confession to protect you. However awful you had been, ten minutes in a confessional and a few Hail Marys and you were good as new. In the other hand, the sword of self-righteousness. Those awful unbelievers, those who would mock you, those who committed terrible acts and broke the commandments and were having fun and seemed happy and carefree, they would all be punished. And you would be vindicated. Right all along, you’d be, eating ice cream with Jesus and feeling pretty slick.
Fast forward sumpty sumpty years and all of my faith has gone. No, I’ll go further than that, not only have I lost the faith I did have, but my belief that there is no God, no heaven, no hell, no resurrection of the dead nor life of the world to come, my belief in that is stronger and more committed than any faith I had as a child. My misfiring, sputtering neurons have been given their own scale and polish by serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, not by prayer. And the closest I have to a confessional is the office of my therapist.
And sure enough, I reveal the worst of me to her, but there is no rebuke, there is no penance, there is no pain, there is no lecture. There is just the calmness of analysis, a flipchart and a pen. Little circles describing my belief systems, little arrows showing patterns of cognition, little question marks representing evidence. Looping, looping, looping back on themselves to help me understand where I am going wrong. Where my thinking is wrong. Where how I think is not real.
And it helps, it really helps. Some of the time. Am I really the only person in the pub feeling awkward and unsure what to say next and sure that I must look weird or am boring everyone to tears every time I open my mouth? The evidence suggests that no, most people feel that way, to some extent, at different times, and that therefore I am probably incorrect to consider myself a disfigured monstrosity who should hide himself from the public for their own good. However, as they say in scientific papers, further research is needed.
All of this is good. It helps, it really helps. Some of the time.
But there is a part of me that still yearns for the certainties of my lost religion. For my shield, and my sword. For the belief that I will be vindicated, and my foes vanquished. Therapy has replaced all of that not with new certainty, but with a sort of floating, detached, passive acceptance. Of everything. My arsehole brother just got another big raise and now earns eight times more than I do instead of six times DESPITE MY INTELLECTUAL, MORAL AND PHYSICAL SUPERIORITY TO HIM IN EVERY WAY, MIND YOU! Should I feel angry, bitter, depressed? Should I feel that God will punish him and that his mighty riches will count for naught at the pearly gates? No, says therapy, I should consider why my thought processes feel the need to react, why I should feel anything at all about it. I should consider how to return to the equilibrium of acceptance, and get on with the task at hand of getting through the day by sifting evidence and playing the odds.
Catholicism was snakes and ladders, where you always get to the end if you play for long enough and stick to the rules. Therapy is Dungeons and Dragons, you don’t understand all the rules, you just know that you keep rolling dice and trying not to die but that you never really win.
Of course, the comparison is invalid and unfair. Religion tries to tell you the purpose of life, therapy just tries to give you the tools to live it. They aren’t incompatible and they aren’t in conflict. So here I am with the tools, with the newly refitted and tricked out neural pathways, and I’m watching the kids playing outside on Sunday morning, and I’m watching the people going to church on Sunday morning, and I don’t feel like I belong with either of them.
And so, amidst drinking too much and wallowing in existential angst and rereading Jung and wondering if I’ll ever find socks that fit my feet just right, I am trying to establish a personal manifesto. Not a purpose for life, not a fucking mission statement, not a set of arbitrary goals, not a search for the belief system that is going to make everything make sense, just a general sense of who I want to be.
My first draft:
- Be more selfish with your energy, spend it only on the people you love and who love you back.
- Accept that you will get things wrong, and that the people you love will get things wrong too. If you’d forgive them, you can forgive yourself too.
- Constantly learn something new. A language, a skill, a field of knowledge. If you’re crap at it, drop it, quickly, without regret and start on a new one. You don’t have to be the best at it, you don’t even have to be good at it. It’s good for you to learn.
- Use the skills you have to help people. You don’t deserve thanks or praise for doing this, so fuck you if you are hoping for them.
- Yes, your brother is an arsehole. Yes, the kid who deliberately stood on your Scalextric JPS Lotus in 1978 was an arsehole. Yes, the friend who tried to steal your girlfriend when you were 15 was an arsehole. Yes, the people who gossip and lie about you behind your back are arseholes. Yes, the world is full of arseholes, and if this is a surprise to you or you spend time being bothered by it, you’re an arsehole too. Don’t be.
- Write. You know this, you prick. It’s the one thing you can do. So do it.
Who knows, I might even achieve some of it.