Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Conversion, not so fun, actually...

“You can give irrefutable proofs of the stupidity of birth-control theories and of the harm that comes from putting them into practice; but as long as there is no sincere determination to let the Creator carry on His work as He chooses, then human selfishness will always find new sophistries and excuses to still the voice of conscience and to carry on abuses.”

- Pope Pius XII, The Large Family, 1958

Mike is writing about the link between contraception and "gay marriage," but the quote above reminded me of something I learned some time ago.

When I first became involved in the pro-life movement, I did so because I had learned certain true things. I knew they were true because they were in accord with medical science (empirical evidence), with my own observations and were not internally contradictory. I assumed, in my naivete, that other people would also change their minds about these things if they were shown the same facts. People, I reasoned, were basically good and wanted to do the right thing and lacked only knowledge. Exposure to reality was the only thing wanting.

I forgot, or didn't know, that there is always a factor of willfulness to human ignorance, and that the general culture had taught people that there is nothing more important than getting what they want. Nothing. Not truth or facts or even monstrous evil.

The only thing that saved me from the same trap was, ironically, probably my weird hippie upbringing, the first axiom of which was that the general culture is always wrong and bad. I was raised by people who were consciously and deliberately non-conformists. Of course, being humans, the hippie culture fell into the normal traps for humans, and, some time between the 1970s and 80s, became the conformity, the general culture which I had been trained to resist.

I had no problem with this, especially after I had figured out how logically to discern the difference between objective right and wrong (something the hippies weren't big on that took many more years). After that it was easy to understand what was going on and how important it was to shun what John Paul II eventually helpfully named the Culture of Death.

But it wasn't until I started speaking and writing on the things I'd learned that I found out this sadder, darker part of human nature. The part that will go on "believing" something that is demonstrably untrue because believing it gets the person what he wants. And because changing his mind about it would mean admitting that he had been wrong, and in most cases, in the wrong, on the wrong side, the bad side.

I can understand that too, because I had been on the Bad Side for a long time and had done and believed terrible, miserable, evil and damaging things most of my life. It was a horrible realisation, and one that cost a great deal of suffering until I had come to terms with it. I was actually made seriously ill for over a year when the understanding really hit home. So, I really get it. I know how hard it is to give up the righteous self-justification, the tangle of egotism and lies one lives in when caught up in the ideas common to the "general culture". It's damn hard to think outside the cultural box.

And it can create havok in your relationships. I know someone who came from a working class Catholic family in Nova Scotia and did nothing more than learn more about the Church's teachings, on a variety of topics, and nearly alienated her whole family, and all her friends. Though she had never been exposed to booky people, she had a naturally inquisitive mind and sharp intelligence and had always been aware that there was something lacking, something not being talked about, in the mainstream of Novus Ordo Catholicism. We became friends and I loaned her a few books and we talked a lot. She started meeting other people who knew lots of things and talking and reading and thinking. We actually prayed together a great deal and finally formed a little women's prayer group who met for tea, Divine Office and chats at my apartment in Halifax. (Yes there was a time when I was actually devout... sigh). She became more serious about her faith, more serious about the life issues, more attentive and discerning about politics and generally more grown up and responsible, more serious as a person all 'round.

Eventually, she decided to leave her job and attend a small independent Catholic college in Ontario for a year to learn more. She didn't want to become an academic, or an "intellectual" or really change her life very much at all (which was perfectly satisfactory in most respects) but she had a great deal of curiosity and wanted to learn things.

Her family completely flipped out. She was, from their working class perspective, getting above herself by going to college. But worse, she was starting to act as though they were not holy and pious enough. Who was she to find the regular English Mass at their parish not good enough? Who was she to start telling them that contraception was evil and destructive? Who was she, all high and mighty all of a sudden, to wear a mantilla at Mass and talk like she'd swallowed the Catholic encyclopedia?

Obviously there was a lot of classism going into this clash, and given the demographics, it's pretty understandable. Being one of the best humans I've ever met, she was able finally to work past this with her family, but she never moved back to Nova Scotia. She never was able to move back into their world at all, and they knew it. Love overcame, but it was hard. You can't un-know what you know. You can't go back into the Matrix once you're out.

(Shout-out: you know who you are, darling, dearest friend. I wish you would write or email or something.)

The other day, I was sneakily looking at the FB pages of some of my friends from high school. I remarked that it was strange, extremely strange, to look at those faces, so very familiar but so changed at the same time. Most of my friends from school turned out really well, by secular standards. They've all got pretty good jobs, nice homes. Most of them got married and most of them have at least a couple of kids. They all look generally happy and prosperous. As you would expect from people of that millieu, having grown up in one of the most beautiful and wealthy places in the world.

It was weird. They were all normal and nearly all of them had stayed in or around Victoria. What's more, a lot of them had stayed in touch, and were still hanging out to a degree. What the hell had happened to me to so totally remove me from what had once been my whole world? It's hard to describe the feeling I had. I told a friend it was feeling like a replicant (except, as he pointed out, replicants have the opposite problem and feel like normal people, but aren't), as though I had no real past and that all my memories were implanted engrams generated by a computer.

I didn't contact any of them, and didn't want to. It was too weird for one thing, but also I knew that they lived in a kind of parallel universe, and though probably many of them still loved me, we would have no way of communicating. Looking back at my life then is like looking down the reverse end of a telescope at a life lived by someone else. Or a life from someone in a book or a movie I watched once a long time ago and had mostly forgotten about.

In other words, conversion changes you. It does so in a way that is irreversible and progressive. You keep changing afterwards because once you have made the first big change, you begin to see things that you need to know, whole worlds of knowledge and ideas that you didn't know were there, and it comes along with an urgent need to learn them. So not only do you move far away from what you were, and frequently all in one big heave, you keep moving away, like a moon that's been knocked out of its orbit around a planet and now has nothing to stop it from heading for deep space.

When you've changed because of learning something shocking, something totally life-altering, you can't go back. And often, you can't replicate the experience for your friends and family. You can't make them have it, so you have to leave them behind. You have no choice.

For a long time in the early time of my involvement with the pro-life movement, I tried to bring people with me, and in every case, totally failed. Through the mercy of God I had moved 3000 miles away, so there wasn't much more pain to be had in the way of rejection. My family had already long since disappeared and I fell in with a very good crowd of young Catholics, many of whom were, for various reasons, having exactly the same experience. It all very much smacked of a Plan. But it was a costly one. It required giving up everything I had that I loved. And nearly everyone. Even real love has a hard time overcoming such an enormous change.

16 years later, I've learned a great deal about how the conversion process works, and what it does to you. So I'm not in the least surprised that people don't suddenly change their minds about, say, abortion or homosexuality or any of that stuff. How do you change to a worldview that is totally separate from the one nearly everyone else inhabits? How do you even want to? There has to be something niggling in the back of your mind. You have to have had a life-long awareness, like my friend above did, that something, something is not quite right. Something in this world of charms and flowers is wrong, there's a sour note in the symphony. Something that just seems odd, off, out of place.

Then one day you see it, grinning at you, showing all its teeth, and you realise with a horrifying shock that everything you think is wrong. There is a monster attached to you by its mouthparts, and it's grinning at you, and at everyone you know, because it knows you can't see it and it will be able to eat you in the end. Eat you forever.

Here's a song that one of those Ancients of my life put me on to, that I haven't listened to since then.



Fr Paul of Niagara said...

Yes, one with an evil grin looks on, waiting. Others grin not.


We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.

Marie said...

Thanks for sharing. I have been going through this for the last couple of years, except I thought I was the only one. Reading this really helps.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I always thought that the "large and awful faces" referred to the angels who don't think the Barbarian is funny and aren't at all amused by our amusement.

Fr Paul of Niagara said...

For the time being, the devils grin and the angels weep.

Wendy in VA said...

You just described the last 12 years of my life more eloquently than I could have. Thankfully, my husband has headed into deep space with me.

Anonymous said...

Joining the Catholic church has been a lonely journey. As a druggy, there is a certain comradery; people kind of accept that other people are weird. There is no druggy dogma to get upset over.

In the Church, there are life and death issues to get upset over; and lots of people are upset each other. Even conservative(tm) Catholics angry at other conservative (tm) Catholics. Makes for a lonely life.