Saturday, December 31, 2016

Joe Omundson

Small town connection

It's the end of 2016! When I started this project in February I wasn't sure how long it would last, but 73 posts later I'm excited to keep writing. I have a long way to go to become a good writer; it's trickier than I thought. I'm glad I got started and stuck with it because now that this page is established it feels great to have an outlet for whatever I want to write. Special thanks go to my mom and my dearly departed step-mom for pushing me to keep writing.

I have a few halfway-written drafts in my queue and I decided to pick one of them to finish for my final post of 2016. I'd like to share this description of a day in the Moab life. I've written some posts recently outlining the difficulties I face with my lifestyle, but I also want to highlight the beautiful parts that make it worthwhile for me. This is the story of Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.


I woke up at about 9:30 in the morning. It was 40 degrees in my car, parked underneath the cottonwood trees. My friend Eric had been visiting from California for a week, and he was leaving this morning so I said goodbye and wished him a good return trip.

I skipped breakfast and drove six blocks to the donation-based gentle yoga class. Eleanor is a 73 year old woman who has lived in Moab for 40 years, and she leads the class twice a week with light and laughter. There were three other students this morning and as usual I was the only male, and the youngest person by 30 years. The class was peaceful and we left feeling refreshed and happy. I usually attend 3-4 times per month and am always grateful for that joyful group of people.

From there, I drove a couple blocks to the food bank. I was eligible for my monthly haul. I was planning to hitchhike that weekend and needed some food to take with me. I ran into Cameron and his dog Juno and I chatted with him while we waited. There were still several people in line ahead of me when a semi-truck arrived with some pallets of food to drop off. I helped unload the food. Jason, another guy who lives similarly to the way I do and helps out at the food bank, was coordinating the food distribution and instead of filling my cart with the "standard" items he gave me an empty cart and said to take whatever I wanted. So I chose all the healthiest options and left with a good pile of food. I went home and made lunch, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and about a pound of ground turkey that needed to be consumed that day.

I went to the shop to work on painting some cabinet doors. Brooke came over to clean out an adjascent room and we talked sometimes. Then Mathieu showed up, my French-Canadian motorcycle-vagabond friend, and he taught me how to ride a motorcycle, which was something I'd always wanted to learn.

Adrian had invited me to the locals showcase, a free concert to kick off the folk music festival that weekend. I went there that evening with Dennis, my van-dwelling friend from New York, and we met up with Adrian and Ben and some of their friends. The last act was the Fiery Furnace marching band, which had people up and dancing, and everyone followed them as they marched outside to finish their performance in the street. I ran into a different Ben, a thru-hiker who I met in Stehekin this summer as I was finishing my PCT hike, and said hi to him.

When the marching band was done, a couple I didn't know approached me and asked which bar I thought would be a good one to walk to. I gave them a couple ideas, including the Rio, where I was heading next because it was karaoke night and my friends wanted to do that. So I walked to the bar, found Dennis, but sat at a table with this couple (Justin and Rebecca), who bought me a beer. They were living out of their trucks and staying in Moab for a few weeks. Adrian came and the four of us talked. Her roommate was also there for karaoke with some other friends, and I was excited to be invited to join their weekly writing club.

At the end of the night I walked back to the cottonwoods to show my new friends and invited them to camp there with me, which they ended up doing for a couple weeks.


What I love about small town community is how easy it is to see people you know, and to meet new people. Without creating any schedule these interactions flowed effortlessly. Without spending a dime, I was able to participate in yoga, get groceries, see a concert, go to a bar, and learn to ride a motorcycle in one day; all within a 3-block radius. Other days, I've participated in bike parties, met awesome people at Fresh Moab Coffee (where it's donation-only and you make it yourself), eaten at community dinners, shared the library as a communal living room, seen local parades and festivals, gone dancing in the desert, and enjoyed campfires on the edge of a huge canyon.

Portland might be a progressive place with a lot of cool people, but I never had days like this when I lived there. It's so busy and anonymous that if you want to see a familiar face it has to be carefully arranged. My personality seems to do a lot better in the more intimate setting of an interconnected little town. Here, community interaction is built in to daily life, and everything you need is just a few minutes away. Less chaos, more rest. As much as I miss my friends in the big city I can't forsee myself going back to live in a place like that anytime soon. Moab's community is too strong of a vortex.

I was thinking about leaving on a journey to South America this spring, but I think I'm going to stay in town through the summer, sink my roots in a little deeper, earn some money, enjoy the nice weather, and be more prepared to leave town when it starts getting cold here around October. 2016 was pretty good to me but I'm excited to see what changes 2017 will bring.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Joe Omundson

Visionary profile: Alex Wall

There are difficulties and perks that come with writing a personal blog. It can be intimidating to publish intimate details of my life for all the world to see; vulnerability has the risk of attracting judgment or making me less employable. At the same time, it's freeing to talk about the things that matter most to me and to know that I have nothing to hide.

But my favorite thing is when someone reads my blog, relates on a deep level, and reaches out to make a connection. It doesn't happen often, but it's really exciting when it does.

I was hiking the PCT in Northern California in May of 2015 when I got to a town and checked my email. Waiting in my inbox was a message from Alex titled "Philosophical brothers?". I was instantly elated. He introduced himself, explaining that he'd previously undertaken a walking trip across the country, and was planning to do another big one. He'd read some of my PCT blog and was on the same page philosophically. He was interested in meeting me and possibly doing some joint writing about the paradigm we are both passionate about moving toward.

He's no typical blogging thru-hiker, though. Alex wanders between rural spaces, small towns, and urban centers, inventing his own route. He sets out with no money, camps rough most of the time, and relies entirely on donations from his readers. When he runs out of money he goes hungry, sometimes for days at a time. He assumes the societal risks of a homeless person and explores all the implications of how that dynamic affects his interaction with the world.

Alex often includes a map of his improvised campsites

Shortly after our initial contact, Alex embarked on a 367-day tour of the country, starting in California, working north through Oregon and Washingon, then traveling east and south across the country to Georgia, and eventually back north to Maine. Sometimes he rode a bus or a train, but he walked many of the miles on foot.

From the very first email he's been supportive of my life path and encouraged me to keep going. We've never met, but we stayed in touch, sharing many thoughts, struggles, and goals. He's about 20 years my senior and he got a later start at his ambitiously free-formed lifestyle. The age difference is an interesting complement because in a sense he can play a mentor role to me, and in return he is excited that I am starting his kind of work at a younger age, with potentially more time to develop it than he has. Interestingly, he has medical concerns with his heart, like I do. Alex is one of the few people who can fully empathize with my journey, and if you look at the comment section beneath my posts you'll often see his love and support pouring out.

Alex is one of the most prolific and vivid writers I've ever encountered. Throughout his year long journey, rain or shine, hot or cold, food or not, he maintained the insane workload of writing a photo-infused account of every day's experiences -- a "Living Magazine". A lot of people blog daily, but Alex doesn't hold back on anything, and he has a perspective that few people would ever voluntarily assume. The story of his daily experiences is interesting, but what strikes me is the clarity with which he presents the internal struggle of life in the bottom class. It's a special thing because it requires a huge amount of dedication. It's exceedingly difficult to write under the circumstances in which he places himself. He does this grueling work with no promise of financial return.

Keeping dry is a constant struggle in rainy weather.

He is deeply sensitive, highly empathetic, and cares passionately about the welfare of all human beings. And it's not an abstract concern, it's something that plays out practically in his life. His ability to communicate both the realities of daily life and his theoretical conceptions is something I aspire to emulate. He has the kind of wide-open mindset that is able to perceive the systemic whole of our reality and foresee various ways that society could evolve to provide a better future for all life on earth.

In addition to the candid descriptions of personal experience, and illustrations of his dreams and visions, Alex often gives walking tours of the places he explores, sharing dozens of photos of the most interesting things he finds. Those interested in history and geography will find his accounts of people and places fascinating.

Union Station in Portland, Oregon

Alex has written so much content that I have only read a small percentage of his work. I am horrible at following blogs and he knows that I have not kept up with his journey as closely as many of his readers. But the work I have read is always illuminating, and stunningly raw. I don't know of anyone else who has undertaken a similar life venture and laid it out so plainly for people to understand. I am writing this blog post because I really want more people to be exposed to his writing. It deserves more attention than it gets, more attention than I can give it. Please take some time to check out his story, and send some money his way if you can!

This is this start of his most recent journey, a good place to start reading, as he left San Francisco on June 21, 2015.
Follow his Facebook page for regular updates.

(All photos courtesy of Alex Wall)
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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Joe Omundson

The difference between homeless and houseless

(Photo by Garry Knight, cropped to fit)

One of the side effects of living in my car is gaining a little bit of perspective on what it's like to be homeless.

There's a huge difference between being homeless and houseless. Some people, like me, choose to live in a vehicle or a tent for the fun of it. We have the option of returning to housed life at any time. We are houseless on purpose. Overall, it's fun; it saves a lot of money and we can tolerate the discomforts.

Homelessness is living outside because you lack the ability, resources, or social status to pay rent and live inside, even though you'd prefer it. There's nothing fun about that.

I remember reading about how homeless people will often spend their monthly welfare check to get a motel room for a few days. I used to think: well, that's silly. Why would they do that? They could be buying food, or saving it up for other things they really need. Why blow it all on a shitty motel room?

Now I get it. Let me explain.

Earlier this month I was invited to live in an empty room at a friend's house in exchange for some work, but they quickly found a paying roommate and I had to leave. Before that, I'd been camping on a property where I could use a heater to warm my car and prepare food with an outdoor kitchen, but I couldn't return there because I'd already told the property owner that I would be moving out, and broken down camp. Now I found myself in the same situation I was in when I first moved to Moab: stealth camping on the street, using public bathrooms, not having a place to cook food, with all of my belongings in my car. No big deal -- been there done that, right?

The difference is: now it's fucking cold. That IS a big deal. It's been dipping down well below 20 degrees, even inside my car, and the lowest temperature I've seen is 14.6 F on my thermometer. I'm essentially sleeping in a freezer. Technically, it's fine because I have blankets, and down bags, and when I'm all bundled up I stay plenty warm. It's not like I'm going to freeze to death. The thing is, I can't just be in bed whenever it's nighttime. Nights are really long.

Most days, the library serves as my living room. It's usually open until 8pm, and I can hang out in the warmth until it closes, but that puts me out in my cold car at 8:05 and there aren't really any warm places where I can hang out until the library opens again at 9am. That's 13 hours, only 8 of which I can reasonably be expected to sleep. On Saturdays the library closes at 5pm, and on Sundays it's closed all day.

So I've had some days where I'm lying in bed in my tiny car for hours trying to stay warm, reading books or using my phone. I feel trapped in my bed because any part of my body that I expose to the air gets cold quickly. I don't want to drink water because it's icy and it makes me cold, so I get dehydrated. This is frustrating psychologically because all I do is wish that the weather would be warm again so I could be comfortable. Every morning frozen condensation coats the inside of my car.

There are other factors that compound the situation. Without a place to cook food, my diet went downhill a bit. I used to think this didn't affect me much, but after a few months of eating mostly real foods like potatoes, onions, and rice, convenience food definitely feels gross by comparison, and is much more expensive. On top of that, I had a couple nights of bad sleep. A few days ago I woke up at 2am and never fell back asleep. That whole day had a layer of haze that made everything feel surreal. These things add a dimension of anxious helplessness to life.

But, I went to bed very excited the next night, because in the morning my good friends were leaving town for a week and they'd asked me to house-sit for them. I only had to make it through another night of the trapping coldness and then I'd have a whole house to myself! Warmth! Privacy! Kitchen appliances! Hot water! A real bed! Space to move around! Internet! Electricity! Oh my god, what a dream! I shivered myself warm with a smile on my face.

I woke up at 4am and again had trouble falling back asleep. Never in my life have I been the kind of person to wake up in the wee hours and have trouble getting back to sleep, so this was eye-opening. I knew my friends were leaving "really early" that morning, so I waited until 6, drove to their house, found that they'd left, parked in the garage, brought in my food, took a hot bath, and passed out. I spent that day and the next one simply vegging out and enjoying the fact that life was so damn easy all of a sudden.

I'm lucky to be in the houseless class and not homeless, because I get these kinds of opportunities to regroup. While I'm here I'm going to be working on my car to make it a bit more livable. I have a Coleman stove now. I'll sleep in it for another week or so after my friends get back and then I'll probably head down to Arizona for a couple weeks where it's warm. I can get through the winter like this, subsisting on these sporadic exchanges with friends and community members.

But what if I were actually homeless? I only have a hint at what that would be like. What if on top of all the things I mentioned, I had the kind of social stigma that made people look down on me and see me as inferior? If the cold had been getting into my bones for years and not weeks? If I didn't have my secure warm bed in my car? If I was doing it not of my own agency, but because I had post traumatic stress from war, or a criminal record, or a mental illness, or a debilitating addiction, or no education, or childhood abuse or neglect -- all of which would reduce my opportunities even further? If I were anything but a white male in our society? If I was not only eating poor quality food, but actually going hungry? If I didn't have enough bedding to stay warm, and couldn't sleep well? These can be HUGE barriers to meeting even basic survival needs.

Many people who have never experienced homelessness don't understand why they don't pick themselves up by the bootstraps and start making the choices that will lead to "success". The reason is very simple: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If someone faces extreme difficulty obtaining food, water, warmth, shelter, sleep, and safety, how are they going to focus on building loving connections and self esteem? If they can't build those things, how are they going to work on self-actualization -- the ingredient necessary for self-rescue from a very difficult situation? Planning an escape from that kind of hell requires long-term vision, yet all energy must be spent surviving today.

When you live in a house, life is easy in so many ways that you take for granted. It's easy to forget that you exist in a very uplifted mental and physical state compared to what a homeless person experiences. Tasks that are mindless for you can be exceedingly difficult for them. They are so busy just trying to keep their heads above water that they don't have the energy to swim toward shore, never mind learn how to water ski. It is no surprise that alcoholism and drug addictions are so common. They provide an escape from this dismal reality. People just want to feel OK.

The reason homeless people spend their monthly welfare checks on a few nights in a motel room is because they desperately crave a small taste of the quality of life that you experience on a daily basis.

If we really want to help homeless people, let's help them meet their basic needs in a secure, stable way. Let's give them homes first without presenting additional barriers. Let's not withhold financial aid because they suffer from addiction. Let's not make it hard for them to find bathrooms, water, or food. Let's not stigmatize them for mental illness or substance issues.

Don't be shy about giving them money. It doesn't matter what they spend it on. You have it and they don't. It gives them more power. If you can, give them shelter for a time, or at least don't call the cops to get them to leave a public space. Think about the basic things you have that they don't, and notice what they're missing, and try to help them have those things.

There are some actions we can all do to help, but ultimately this is a system-level problem. We live in a society that worships money and creates this class of people as a waste byproduct. The reality is, we have enough resources to house and feed all humans. It's a question of distribution, it's a question of our values and what we're motivated to do with our resources. Our economy is huge. There is excess everywhere.

Please believe in a future that manages our excesses in a better way, which will provide for the needs of those who are unable to navigate this hellish system instead of providing another billionaire with another billion dollars. Take the first steps in that direction, not only with your ballot votes but with the dollar votes you cast every day. Don't listen to the people who say homeless people deserve it because they did something wrong. It's inhumane, but more than that, it's shitty logic. Our current approach to homelessness costs us a lot, both in dollars and humanity. Adopting a housing-first approach would cost a trivial percentage of our annual budget and it would give hundreds of thousands of people a realistic path to regaining their dignity, stability, health, and productivity.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Joe Omundson

Is death the end?

Endings and goodbyes are difficult. My brain likes to assume future continuity, so cessation in general can be disorienting. I especially can't seem to come to terms with death, the ultimate goodbye. When I was a Christian the answer to this was simple: death isn't the end, it's just a transition to a different life which lasts forever. Eternity was impossible to grasp, too, but in a more comforting way. It felt incomprehensibly wonderful instead of damningly bleak. I couldn't wait to experience it.

Now that I don't believe in any kind of spiritual afterlife, reconciling my view of death with my desire for continuity is challenging. These things may be irreconcilable because my desires are not necessarily in line with reality. But the idea of falling asleep and never waking up is disturbing, and I'd like to have more peace about it.

Maybe death is not so much the end of all awareness like I've feared, but more like a leaf falling from a tree. Yes, the individual unit has run its course but the underlying structure which birthed and sustained it remains intact.

The individual is always simply a part of a bigger unit; we don't stand alone and we never have. We depend intimately on countless environmental inputs and reactions every day of our lives. Even our bodies are not ours. We share them with a vast array of microbial organisms whose actions directly affect our experience of reality via neurochemical influences. The "person" that we feel like we are is already an abstract conglomeration of trillions of tiny little lives.

Another analogy would be to consider all of humanity as one body, and individual humans as the cells. Cells are constantly dying and regenerating, and the entire body is replaced after some time, but the spirit-idea that animates the body remains a singular, enduring, evolving entity.

In the same way, when people die, fundamental humanity-consciousness is not affected. The branch from which the leaf falls is still alive.

Perhaps the more attention we give to the underlying structures of life, and the more we shift our perspectives outward from ourselves into what is more holistic and interconnected, the more immortal we become; the individual becomes insignificant. Our lives then exist within the web which connects us all, which will continue to exist and evolve long after death.

It's like someone who uploads their consciousness-files to the cloud, instead of storing them on a personal hard drive. Their personal computer will grow obsolete, the hard drive will fail, and eventually all local information will be lost, but the files will endure if they're stored within a dispersed network.

Why do we store our lives on a hard drive instead of the cloud? The cloud requires trust. It requires letting go. A hard drive feels concrete, secure, because it is in our personal control; but it is also very finite and fragile. Trust in a broader connection is stronger even though it feels uncertain and requires dependence on others.

I think death is inevitably going to be traumatic, but if we devote our lives to transcending personal experience and merging with all of the reality we find around us, I wonder if our deaths could feel less like "the end" and more like "an end", with other parts of our spirit-idea continuing indefinitely. This seems to be what all the other animals do. They don't have anxiety about death because they've never indulged in this illusion that we are separate from what is around us. They play out their roles like the leaves on a tree and when their time is up they don't hesitate to fall. Life continues to flow around and through them.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Joe Omundson

Path of healing

In my completely non-professional, non-therapist, spectator opinion: healing from trauma is an iterative cycle of growth. It happens naturally as long as we are healthy enough to roll with our emotions, love ourselves, and accept life as it happens. Personal growth is inhibited when we have problems that prevent us from going through this cycle in a productive way.

I believe that every person has unlimited potential. Statistically, not everyone will achieve their potential in this life, because we live inside systems that don't always have our best interest in mind, and that tends to have a serious detrimental effect on people's lives. But on an individual level I believe that lives can be turned around from the darkest of places.

None of these steps is easy, fast, simple, or comfortable. Any one of these steps could take years to comprehend, nevermind execute. But I think, overall, this is the process that has to happen. Of course, it's different for everyone, and there could be extra steps, fewer steps, or they could happen in a different order.

1) Get away from whatever the source of your trauma is. Abusive people, damaging situations. Get to a place where you can at least survive without getting more damaged by the people who are involved in your life. This can mean moving away, changing your job, cutting contact with certain friends and relatives, or finding a specific sub-group of people who relate well to your experience and won't inherently judge you as a bad person. Find a safe space in life where you can breathe.

2) Within this space, the immediate trauma can stop accumulating. You might still be bleeding and agonized, but at least the knife isn't being twisted around inside you anymore. Try to find stable people who will hold safe space for you, who you trust, who are willing to put some effort and love into you because they see how good you are. Try to come to terms with the fact that what happened to you wasn't fair and it wasn't your fault. That you are still a valuable person who deserves love, warmth, and good things. Seek therapy, seek healing, seek to further your understanding of yourself and the factors that shaped your life.

3) With less hurt coming into your life you can try to drop the most self-destructive coping mechanisms. The good people surrounding you have got your back, so you can put a little bit less effort into defense, and redirect that energy toward some kind of practical life improvement. As an example, maybe you can focus on having a healthier relationship with food, and in turn you will feel better physically and maybe eliminate more sources of dis-ease.

4) As you find more strength and acceptance in yourself, you can start to do more surgery to heal your past wounds. Part of healing from trauma is re-experiencing your past and accepting it fully, sitting with all the pain that comes up. As you heal more, with support from loved ones, and with healthier habits, you can increase your tolerance for reliving those experiences. In earlier stages it might be more important to simply feel OK to get through the day, using distraction or other tools to avoid suicidal thoughts, so doing this work isn't always a good idea. But eventually the wounds will have to be reopened and exposed to the light for the deepest healing to take place.

5) You'll go through cycles where you experience your grief and trauma again. (This is the cyclical part of the process that I mentioned in the first paragraph.) Things will feel dark, you will feel like you've lost progress, like things are hopeless. But if you pay attention, you'll learn something from it, and when you come around to feeling better again the deep pain will be a bit lighter. You can apply to your life the things you learned, and live with a greater understanding of your own motivations, purpose, and influence. This can unlock new situations with greater potential, leading you to people who support you even more and the freedom to enjoy your self expression. Then, it goes back around to the dark place and you do the whole thing over again, looking ever deeper into your existence to find compassion and love.

6) As you become skilled at managing your own grief, you can start to help others with their own. This can be done earlier in the process too. Talking with other people about their experiences is helpful for everyone involved. Verbalizing what you've learned about love and healing can help cement it as more of a reality in your own life.

Here are some common problems that can get in the way of healing:

  • Not being able to recognize the difference between love and abuse. If you can't recognize which people are treating you well and which ones are manipulating you, it is hard to find the company of truly supportive friends. One way to fight this is to work on recognizing your internal state through some kind of meditative practice, and learn to notice how different people affect your experience when you interact with them.
  • Distractive habits that prevent you from looking inward at all. Some people are so uncomfortable in their own skin that they self-distract constantly. Are you joyful? Angry? Confused? Lonely? If you don't know how to tell, it's hard to learn about yourself or deal with the reality of your emotions.
  • Being in a situation where you feel you can't make the initial break from your abuser(s). Maybe the abuser is a spouse or family member upon whom you are financially, emotionally, or otherwise dependent, and you'd fear for your well-being if you were to leave. I don't know the best resources to recommend, but I know there are domestic abuse shelters and other resources available, and I hope you can find something helpful.
  • Unwillingness to act contrary to other people's expectations. Often our families and friends have ideas about how we should act that are less than useful for us. They might not know the depth of what you have experienced, or have enough empathy to understand why you are the way you are. Sometimes you have to disappoint people in order to take care of yourself.
  • Fear of change. Some people are so afraid of what the future might hold that they will hold on to any semblance of control available to them. This can mean a refusal to let go of people and situations that are harmful. It's important to know that change is often your friend, especially when it takes you in a direction that gives more room in your life for positive growth.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Joe Omundson

Cognitive dissonance

I'm fascinated by cognitive dissonance. Even the way those six syllables pronounce themselves feels exciting; what it represents for me personally, and as a universal human phenomenon, is one of the most interesting things I've found in life.

I like how Wikipedia defines it. "Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values."

It's the feeling I had when I hated the ways the women in my life had been treated yet found myself imitating some of the same actions toward them. When I desperately believed in God yet felt no basis for it. When I volunteered at a needle exchange and experienced heroine and meth users as normal people. When I met a drag queen who was referred to as male and female interchangeably.

There's a wide world out there with innumerable perspectives, ideas, and realities. Layers of interconnection, cause and effect. Natural laws that provide a basis for biological experience and human culture; artificial systems of rules that populations tacitly agree to live by. As we go through life we are bound to discover aspects of reality which contradict our conditioned truths.

But our minds seek internal consistency. We want stability in the world around us and it's uncomfortable when our foundations are challenged. So, we seek to reduce these conflicts in our minds in a number of ways.

Sometimes we deny any information that challenges the worldviews in which we are established. No, people aren't gay by birth! God wouldn't do that. They're just doing it for attention.

Sometimes we come up with more elaborate justifications to hold on to our beliefs. Well, maybe some people are inclined to be gay, but it's still a choice to act on it, and God can help heal that disorder.

Other times we actually allow our preconceived notions to be changed. Wow, I guess I was wrong about gay people; there's nothing bad about them and actually their love is just as beautiful as mine.

I believe that the best thing we can do with cognitive dissonance is learn to notice when we're experiencing it, and embrace it as a learning tool instead of fighting against it. It's not the disequilibrium itself which is painful but rather our anxious struggle to avoid it.

Cognitive dissonance can reveal that in our formative years, two concepts were tied together which were not related. Or, it can show us that there is an underlying connection between two ideas that we perceive as totally separate. Life is a sorting process, a constant refinement of our experience, and the more willing we are to reevaluate our preconceptions the more our consciousness is able to evolve.

When we realize that something in our worldview conflicts with reality, we have a new opportunity to adjust ourselves to become more in line with truth. An erroneous belief is about to expose itself for eradication. While this process can be uncomfortable in the short term, it leads to a more harmonious existence in the future.
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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Joe Omundson

More questions that killed my faith

(For questions 1-3 see this post.)

4) God's answers to prayer

The premise: When you pray to God, he answers. He might answer "yes", "no", or "maybe". It might be immediate or it might take a while. It might be mysterious, or roundabout, or it might be a direct response to what you asked for. But you can trust that he always answers.

The question: If any result, at all, can be used to say "look, God answered my prayer", isn't it impossible to disprove prayer? In that case, what meaning does it have? Unless there is real evidence that prayer is effective, how is praying to God anything more than a nice sentiment? If the Christian God is the only true God, shouldn't the result of Christians' prayers be measurably different that those of other faiths? Why do devotees of all religions observe a similar benefit from spending time in prayer, meditation, or worship?

There are a lot of Bible verses that promise tangible results to prayer. For example, Matthew 7:7-11:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

Why don't Christians take this literally? Why do they worry about losing their jobs, if they really believe that all they have to do when they can't afford food and shelter is pray to the God of the universe and he will provide?

"Well, that's not how it works. Other verses say you have to pray according to God's Will for your prayers to come true. You can't just get whatever you want from God. And you aren't supposed to put God to the test."

If your heart was filled with the Spirit when you accepted Christ, don't you know God's Will? Isn't that already how you're praying? So why not believe the Bible and expect results, as so many verses promise? This bit about praying according to God's Will is just another layer of illusion. If you pray and it came true -- must have been God's will. Didn't come true? I guess it wasn't his will for you. In other words: whatever is going to happen is going to happen and you can't change it with prayer, because his will is beyond our understanding. "Don't put God to the test" -- in other words, ignore the fact that the Bible's promises about prayer aren't reliable.

The answer that satisfied me: The voice of God is something we can create in our own heads. We are good at seeing patterns where there are none. We are good at dancing until it rains and then believing our dance made it rain. In any measurable test, prayer doesn't work in a supernatural way. You could pray to your refrigerator and get the same result as praying to God: some of the requests happen, some don't. Prayer is a placebo, and it works the same in many different religions. It's just a tool to help people access a part of their own minds... not direct communication with an omnipotent supernatural being.

5) Draw near to God and he will draw near to you

The premise: God loves his children, and he speaks to them to tell them they are his. If you open up your heart to him you will experience his abundant love, the same love which will keep you amazed for eternity in heaven. Sometimes you might go through a "desert time", a dry spell of not feeling God or hearing from him, but this is part of a lesson he's teaching you and ultimately his love for you is infinite and perfect.

The question: Then why do so many Christians never feel any real presence of God, despite years of authentic devotion and honest attempts to open up to his love, hours and days spent crying for his presence and desperately yearning to feel held by him?

Those years I spent searching for his love and assurance... why didn't I ever hear anything back or experience anything like a loving supernatural force?

The answer that satisfied me: The idea that there is a God who wants you to feel loved by him simply isn't true. Some people are good at feeling imaginary love and other people aren't. It's another placebo. For some people the effect is strong enough that it really helps them feel happy on a day-to-day basis; other people get nothing out of it. If it works for you, they will say "great, isn't God's love amazing?" If it doesn't work for you, "just hang in there and keep trying, God won't give you a bigger dry spell than you can handle, he really does love you, don't expect that your needs are going to be met in any specific way because that's arrogant and God's ways are beyond our understanding." If we believe that God will absolutely draw near to us if we draw near to him, and he isn't drawing near to us, then clearly we aren't doing a good enough job of drawing near to him.

6) Anyone who leaves the faith was never a Christian

The premise: If a Christian decides to leave the faith, it's not because they made a rational choice after fairly evaluating the Christian experience. It's because they never authentically experienced God and his perfect love; anyone who is a true Christian enjoys God's love so much that they would never, ever choose to leave. All real Christians remain believers forever.

The question: Is it easy to become a Christian, or not? When pastors give altar calls at the end of their sermons, they lead the congregation through a simple prayer of inviting Jesus into their hearts and accepting them as their personal lord and savior, and then they inform anyone who followed along that they are now saved and going to Heaven. If one prayer is enough for the Holy Spirit to come in and change your heart forever, then how can it be true that someone who honestly seeks God for years and then decides to leave was never a Christian?

The answer that satisfied me: This is nothing more than a way to invalidate the personal experience of those who reject Christianity. If Christians accepted that some people give God a fair trial and still end up disbelieving, it would cast doubt on the idea that God's grace is perfect, that his salvation is delicious, that his Holy Spirit always does incredible heart work. So, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, Christians are fed an easy solution: that person was never a believer.

This logic is fragile because most Christians will eventually have a close friend or relative who leaves the faith after being a devoted Christian. When that happens, the Christian has a choice: they can either reject the logic that a real Christian never leaves the faith, having known their friend's heart intimately, and be forced to wonder why the Holy Spirit doesn't work 100% of the time; or they can turn against that friend and criticize them for being a heretic because they simply cannot accept the idea that losing faith is possible. The more fearful the person is, the more likely they are to choose the 2nd option, because they don't want to accept that someday they could come to the same conclusion. They want to believe their own fate is sealed and secure and that the doubts they have will never increase to an unbearable level like their friend's did.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Joe Omundson

my deconversion letter

I sent this email on May 6, 2009. I never looked at it again until last night and I wasn't sure what I would find. It was really interesting to revisit my thoughts from 7 years ago, and I realized that I can't really explain my loss of faith any better than I already did here -- so here's my letter, now that I'm out to the whole world. [Sometimes I'll add notes and they'll be formatted like this. Also I edited the formatting to break up some walls of text. Otherwise it's completely unedited.]

Hello beloved Mom, Dad, and Wife.

I'm not really sure how to write this, because I'm not sure how much of it you expect/know already, or how much it will shock you.
But I guess I can say that if you want to keep your image of me being a committed and contented Christian, you should probably close this right away.

I've spent quite a bit of time on this so please read carefully.

Please, don't talk to anyone about this email. You can share it with your spouses if you wish but please impress upon them that it shouldn't be talked about with other people, especially people like Grammy who would probably excommunicate me and/or discuss it with every living relative I have. [I'm surprised I cared so much who they told, or what my family would think. But that's probably because I've now had the experience of 7 years out of the faith with nobody in the family mentioning it, which wasn't what I expected.]

What it comes down to is this: I'm not sure if I believe in God anymore. This isn't some stupid thing like I went to college and none of my friends were doing it so I lost interest. This is something that has been happening since the first months at Bible school [a 9 month program I did after high school]. You know me, and you know that if I have a conviction about the truth and merit of something, I don't lose that conviction because of peer pressure or because I'm tired of a church or whatever. No, this is something that has been on my mind probably every day for the last two or three years, and I need to finally tell someone about it or I'll go crazy.

I guess it started like this: I was so excited to go to Bible school, and finally learn some amazing things about the Bible, and learn all about its origins and all the fascinating facts that prove absolutely that it is the real deal, and how incredibly the OT prophets revealed the NT truths about Christ, and all kinds of things about words in the ancient languages and their meanings.

Instead of learning all the fascinating information about the Bible, most of the lecturers just did life-application stuff. They went through books of the Bible and applied the stories to our lives. That's nice, but you can do that with any book. Instead of learning convincingly about how perfect the prophecies were and how it MUST be the case that Christ fulfilled them, I was given a this suspicious philosophy: any given section of prophecy in the OT was either talking about: 1. the present day of the author, 2. Jesus, or 3. the end times. Isn't that convenient? So, if the prophet said something that seems like what was happening to Israel at that time, that's the first category of prophecy! If the prophet said something that looks like it relates to Jesus, it was prophecy about Jesus! If the prophecy was none of the above, in other words if the words are complete nonsense, it was just prophecy about what's yet to come! So there's no way for a prophet to be proven wrong....

Anyway, even if that was frustrating, obviously somebody else's failure to meet my expectations didn't really cause me to doubt. Basically this is what happened. Often throughout high school I would have the horrifying thought, what if there really is no God? What if this is all just playing out in my head? Why don't I ever feel God? How can I follow God when I never hear him? How can I know that just because I feel “convicted” about a passage in the Bible (this book that must be perfect), it's a living God communicating with me? [I totally forgot I felt that way so much in high school!] And maybe for a while I would pray about it, and it would concern me, and I would question. After a while, I would give up on the questioning, succumb to my desire to have a straightforward definition of my purpose in life, tell myself “who are you to ask these questions?”, and “you just have to have faith”, and with such self-brainwashing I would go back to what I had always known. Well, that's just some background, read the next [2] paragraph[s] and then I'll get back to this train of thought.

Christianity is either 100% real or it is another religion humans invented. What Christianity says is that there is a powerful, involved, loving God. If you believe it is the real deal, you believe it 100%, which means that God becomes your very breath, your reality that is more real than this world, your greatest desire and pleasure. The Holy Spirit makes all sin unpalatable to you, and rather than watch trashy TV shows and movies and youtube videos, you want to spend time praying and reading the Bible. You take Christ literally when he says that we shouldn't be like the Pharisees, whitewashed tombs who care about money and appearance, but rather be like the woman who pours perfume on Jesus' feet, despising her public image for a moment of intimacy with God. You despise the worldliness of the world. You despise sin. Compared to the the greatness of the love you have for your God, your feelings for your parents, children, spouse, are like hatred. God guides you. God loves you. You listen for God's direction, and then you let God's smallest whisper that you hear completely turn around the biggest parts of your life and plans, like the Lockes do, who we all love to laugh about [my "extreme" youth pastors who actually took faith literally]. You would kneel down in the street or sing to God in the square if he led you to it. You would take joy in being tortured for God's name in every way, and you'd bless your tormentors.

If your life as a Christian isn't like that, or at least becoming more that way every day via the movement and working of the Holy Spirit, why the hell would you want to be a Christian? I have absolutely no desire for a halfway lived Christian life. I don't believe in superstition or rituals or mysticism or tradition, which is all you're doing if you don't do it all the way, if you don't really believe it. And you don't really believe it unless you take what the Bible says about loving God seriously. Some people are afraid of hell, so they become “Christians” just in case hell is real, like it's some kind of an insurance policy; not sure if you'll need it, but you'll sure be glad if it turns out that you do. Some people become Christians so they can have a nice weekly concert and a nice group of friends and nice programs to attend. Some people grow up Christians and never question it. These people are simply seeking comfort and assurance and steadiness. I think that's bullshit. All I want is the absolute truth. If that truth is Christianity, really, that's awesome. If the truth is that there is no God, and Christianity is another invented religion, I have no desire to waste my time in it.

Anyway, at some point in Bible school I came to the questioning again. I so badly wanted to reinvest my life in Christ and his promises, but I just had to know if it was all real. How can you dedicate your life to something if you're not sure that it's real? We learned there that Christianity isn't about what we do, but what God does through us. It isn't something we can try to do, of our own effort, but something God leads us into. We don't get close to him because we tried so hard, but because he takes charge and draws us to him and fights for us. We don't follow his will and please him because we're good at it, but because we can't help it, because it feels so good to love him.

Well, where was that? If that's all true, where is it? Where? “Your love is a mountain, firm beneath my feet”, uhh, where? “Your love makes me sing,” well, not really? How do you experience God's love? You can't hug him. Yeah, sometimes when I'd pray on my bed I'd get a warm and fuzzy and loving feeling, when I tried to feel it. Kind of the same feeling as when I was in middle school and I would hug a pillow and imagine it was a girl I liked. So, I just started waiting for God to show up in my life and make me move. Earnestly, I did. I prayed a lot of nights, to the point of tears, “God, please show me your love, am I yours? Do you love me? I can't just make myself feel you and believe you anymore, I need you to drive my faith, not me. Please come in and do it. I need you”. Stuff like that. I went for a walk at night and knelt down weeping and begging and crying out in a ditch by the side of the road. All I wanted was a taste of his presence, a tangible knowledge that he was with me. Nothing! Not a sound, not a whisper. Did I do something wrong? Does God fulfill his promises, but not to me? So I kept waiting. And nothing happened.

Once again I tried to swallow my questions. This was about the time when I went to Austria [for the last 2 months of my 9 month bible program]. I thought, well, maybe it's just not my place to demand that from God. Maybe I can't expect that. Maybe I just have to be the type of Christian that does it all in his head, knows a lot about the Bible, puts the emphasis on the Greatness of God rather than his love. Maybe it's just my place to be subservient to him because I'm just a little speck and he's as big as the universe. And I tried it for a while, but in the end my brain still kept telling me that it was nonsense. I came to Antioch [a Christian guys' co-op where I lived for my freshman year of college] and tried again, but it wouldn't work.

And basically since then it's just been a kind of decay. I kept waiting to hear something from God but nothing ever came, and I became less certain of what I had believed my whole life, and I became more and more able to see Christianity as another religion, to explain a lot of the phenomenons [phenomena!] I had attributed to faith before. And I guess that's where I still am today, waiting to hear something... I refuse to ignore my questions and push onward again, because I know that a Christianity initiated and led by me goes nowhere satisfying.

“But Joe, you can't just sit there and wait to hear from God... you should read your Bible, and pray, and draw near to him and he will draw near to you.” Well, isn't that kind of true in any religion? If you want to maintain your Buddhism, maybe you should meditate more, and read the holy texts. Maybe if you want to feel better about Islam, you should pray 5 times per day and recite that Allah is God and Mohammad is his prophet and rid yourself of any non-Muslim influences. I mean, of course if you meditate on the “truths” in the Bible, and pray for hours to God, you might start to believe it's really true, and you might “feel” the things you're supposed to feel. If you think it doesn't happen that way, how do you suggest that the billions of non-Christians stick to their faiths all around the world?

Think about this one: imagine you were born in Saudi Arabia to a typical Muslim family, and you were raised reciting over and over that Allah is God and Mohammad is his prophet, and your parents believed it with all their hearts, and your friends did, and it was all you ever knew. Can you honestly say that you'd reject Islam when you heard the Christian gospel? Every faith has its experts, its scholars, its amazing pastors, the people who will convince you that your faith is THE faith, and disprove all other faiths, and give you utmost confidence in the accuracy of your holy text. Even the Mormons have that [LOL, "even the Mormons"! like they're so different]. Every religion has people willing to die for their beliefs. Every religion has people who are convinced beyond ANY shadow of a doubt that they're right. Therefore, I can't say “I KNOW that my Christian faith was the right thing, so I'll force myself to believe it again.”

Let me get one thing straight. It isn't my desire to lose my faith. I don't like it. It's not fun. I would rather it had gone differently; I wish I had been convinced by what I heard at Bible school, and by what I read in the Bible, and I wish I had heard God's voice assuring me that I'm his and that he's real, and I wish that right now I was on track with what I always wanted to do, living passionately for God and completely giving my life to him. I still honestly hope that this happens. I hope that God shows up in my life and moves me. I've been waiting for it for a long time. But I am not moving until he does. Way too many times in my life have I come up against my doubts, and swallowed them, and been unsatisfied, and there is no way I'm doing it again. If God really wants me, he'll draw me to him.

So, I guess if you want a positive look on it, you can see it this way: God is just putting me through an extended desert time, trying to mold me to be usable for him, stretching my faith to the breaking point so that he can use it, or something. Maybe that's really the case. I hope so.

To be honest, I'm scared. What if nothing ever happens, and I have to become an Agnostic or something? [Oh the horror.] What if I'm wrong, or stupid, and I die and go to hell? What are you guys going to think when you read this? I've bared my soul in this letter, and I'm not done yet.

Ginny, I love you. I'm so scared for you to read this. I don't know what to expect. My worst fear is that you
will find this unacceptable, and divorce me. I so, so don't want that. Maybe you think that the only reason I wanted to marry you was because you love God so much, and now that's all gone or something, and I don't like you anymore. That's not true. Even if I lose my faith completely, and you keep going strong with yours, I want to be with you if you will have me. I might not know how to experience God's love, but I know your love, and it means everything to me. I love you for who you are, for your sharp mind, your sweetness, because you understand me, and because you want to do something with your life. I'm really sorry for this. I know the deal was that we would get married and serve God forever. But I can't hide this from you any longer, and I don't think I've hidden it very well anyway.

Mom, I'm mostly afraid that I'm going to hurt you with this. I know what God means to you. I know how proud you were of me. I'm afraid that you'll cry for me, that you'll worry about me, maybe even be ashamed of me. I'm afraid that you're going to try to talk me back into it with arguments that I've heard dozens of times already. I want you to know that this isn't something I take lightly. But I have to be honest with myself about what I've experienced.

Dad, I'm scared to disappoint you. I don't want you to think I'm bad. I don't want to upset the Omundson Christian tradition, especially if Grammy has to know about it. Honestly I think you will understand it the most, and be the least upset with me. But I'm afraid of what you'll think about me. I'm scared of what everyone will think about me. I also want you to know that this isn't something I take lightly, and I don't want to be insensitive to the damage I can cause.

You guys can write back whatever you want, or if you want, we can talk in person. Please be as blunt as I have been. I'll take your anger and your hurt or whatever else you want to tell me. Feel free to pray for me, not that I could have stopped it. Again, I am sorry to be different from what you expected and hoped from me. I hope at least now you will understand why I haven't wanted to pray at meals, or go to church, or talk about God.

I love you and I hope you will always accept me.

I'm kind of stunned by how much fear I felt going through this process. It took years for a strong-minded person like me, with loved ones who accepted me fully after deconverting, to muster up the strength to come out like this. No wonder so many people feel trapped for life.

I hope that if you're going through something similar, this will be an encouragement that you are not alone, and maybe give you an idea how you could communicate your reality. And I hope that if you never were religious and have a hard time understanding why people don't leave, this will give you some insight into the mind of someone who is leaving a faith which corrals its followers within fences made of fear and shame.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Joe Omundson

Nuclear family vs. community upbringing

Few ideas in our society are held on a higher pedestal than Family. If you're a red-blooded American, your default goals are expected to include marriage, kids, and a house. The nuclear family is regarded as the most legitimate lifestyle structure.

There's nothing inherently bad about being in a nuclear family. Sometimes people fall in love for a long time, have kids, and go through life together as a unit. That's natural and it can be very healthy. But, there are also ways this arrangement can turn into something truly horrible, especially for the children.

Here's the thing: as children, our perception of the world is created by our early experience. Whatever we experience during our childhood becomes our reality. It can only be changed later with a good deal of work, if we're lucky. Children are extremely malleable.

A nuclear family living alone in a house is very isolated. They interact with others during the day to an extent, but otherwise they're separate from the rest of society, walled off and private. Their patterns of interaction are unique to the family, the parents alone decide how to treat the kids, and the kids are completely dependent on the parents to provide for their needs.

Inside a family, the parents play an enormous role in defining a new human being's entire universe. They essentially own that child as property for the next 18 years.

If this arrangement is to work well, parents should be confident, competent, loving people, who understand the ways in which children need to be loved and supported. Those kids usually come to know the world as a stable place where success is attainable and love is natural. But other parents will be insecure, fearful, hateful, and unempathetic people. They might neglect or abuse their kids. They might blame the kids for their own problems. Those kids learn that they aren't good enough, that life is pain, that they can't trust anyone. Children who grow up in abusive situations are usually at a huge disadvantage to those who grow up in loving and stable environments.

If you are an unlucky child and your parents happen to be abusive, sick, and destructive, you're going to be subjected to a lot of agony, and you're basically stuck there. It's luck of the draw. Parents who use physical violence, or emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse, are likely to get away with it because it's behind closed doors and it's justifiable in any number of ways ("Spare the rod, spoil the child! Kids need tough love to prepare them for the real world!").

Society often sides with the parents when a child is suffering. Like owning a dog, a child is considered property, so by default they don't get much of a say in how they're treated. Plus, they "probably deserved it"; they were acting up; they were throwing a tantrum; they were being annoying; they needed to be taught a lesson. The deeper reasons that a child "acts up" are often ignored, and abuse goes unrecognized and unreported. When it is reported, the solutions are often just as bad as the problem (foster care). As a result, many children grow up to become adults who are traumatized, fearful, dysfunctional, depressed, and who then transfer the exact same set of problems onto their own children because they don't realize that there are other options available.

Since the nuclear family is presented as a noble, status-giving, life-legitimizing paradigm, it sets up an unrealistic expectation that starting a family will automatically provide happiness. People pledge their eternal love to a partner, move in together, and start having children just because they assume it will be the right thing to do or because they think it's their only option. It results in a lot of scenarios where people who are unhappy and unfulfilled start a family hoping it will make life feel better, and when it doesn't feel better they become more miserable than ever -- and now they have kids in the equation who are totally at their mercy.

When the number of adults responsible for a child's upbringing is so low, parents run out of energy to satisfy their kids' endless curiosity. Children want to understand things, so they repeatedly ask "why?", and when parents lose patience they eventually answer "because I said so." When children are forced to accept this as an answer, part of their curiosity dies, and instead of being encouraged to understand the complexities of reality, they learn to rely on someone else to tell them what is real and what is right, without questioning why. This leads to adults who unhappily try to live their lives according to what other people have told them is right rather than following their own internal guidance.

Because family is so idealized, there is a lot of social pressure to stay in contact with our close relatives as an adult even if it is unhealthy. Society tells us that we owe our parents something for creating us, even though it was completely their choice . Manipulative behaviors are written off because "that's just how parents are"; while it may be descriptively true that family members commonly use abusive tactics on each other, that doesn't mean human interaction is inherently that way and that it needs to be tolerated. Parents can use this social pressure to coerce even their adult children into accepting situations that are emotionally destructive, for the rest of their lives.

Everyone deserves to be surrounded by loved ones who support them and care for them in healthy ways. The unfortunate reality is that our blood relatives do not always provide this. While we should strive to honor our families and those who poured love into us, we should also be under no obligation to yoke our lives to theirs when doing so is destructive. In cases where our families do us more harm than good, we should feel free to find new groups of people to prioritize in our lives, people who have common goals and values, who accept and understand us. These people show us the real meaning of family and provide us the safe, nurturing, loving care that we need to grow strong in ourselves.

If you are someone who has had a bad experience with family: I believe you. I'm sorry it happened. That sucks. I support you in getting space from them and cutting ties to whatever extent you need.

What if instead of the single-family, single-house, nuclear family paradigm, we became more open to other options?

In my opinion, if children grew up in living spaces that included a larger community of people rather than a strict nuclear family, the odds of them having positive adult influences would balance out greatly. If the parents were absent or incompetent, there would be other stable adults around to help them. There would be other adults to hold the parents accountable if they treated the kids unfairly. This would also be easier on the parents because the community could share the responsibility of watching the kids when the parents want to spend some time doing their own thing.

When kids have more adults to turn to for their questions, they receive more thoughtful and varied responses that encourage them to explore the world and maintain curiosity. They learn more balanced and nuanced views of the world, different perspectives, and they learn to love people with a wider variety of strengths and weaknesses. And they're more likely to hear, at least some time in their lives, "you're OK just the way you are. I love you."

If raised in a community, the attitude toward children might be less that they are property, and more that they are equal members of the group; that they are everyone's future, and everyone's responsibility. This is more along the lines of how human tribes operated for tens and hundreds of thousands of years before recent developments of civilization made it possible for families to live in isolation.

Think of how 1000 fish live in a lake. They can all explore wherever they need to; the amount of available oxygen and nutrients is distributed across the whole community. Their ecosystem develops naturally with the other organisms in the lake. This is like how socialization would work if we still lived as tribal communities. What if you took those fish and put them into 200 different small tanks, and changed the composition of each of the tanks so that none of them was the same? Fed them artificially, starved some of them for oxygen, put fertilizer in some of the tanks, and kept them from interacting freely? You'd get a lot of sick fish. To some extent this is what we've done by creating the expectation that nuclear families should live alone in houses.

As always, topics like this are extremely complicated, and the sad reality of abusive homes can't be blamed completely on any one factor. But to me, our embrace of the nuclear family is an interesting one to explore because it hides in broad daylight. People don't tend to consider it as a possible problem. I think we need to examine all of our ideas, even the ones that feel the most ingrained, because sometimes it's the assumptions we've held the longest that do us the most damage.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Joe Omundson

The questions that killed my faith

These were some of the most difficult questions that I encountered when I was doubting my belief in Jesus. I thought about them for quite a long time and despite the multitude of explanations I heard, I never found answers within Christianity that held any water.

1) Guidance of the Holy Spirit

The premise: Once you accept Jesus as your personal savior, the Holy Spirit (who is also God/Jesus) comes to live inside of you. The Spirit guides you and directs your heart. The Spirit reveals to you the true meaning of the Bible, God's living word, when you read it. Despite the fact that the Bible was written by fallible humans, you can trust that it is a perfect message from God, because the same Spirit who inspired the authors is dwelling in your heart and helps you to understand the meaning of their words.

The question: Why, then, are there so many groups of Christians who interpret the same Bible in such dramatically different ways? Shouldn't the Holy Spirit be the great unifier that easily clears up differences in interpretation, especially since that's supposed to be the mechanism at work which provides believers accurate information from the Bible despite its human authors and the difficulties of translation? How can it be that each group is convinced that they possess the true version of salvation, and that the other groups are heretics, based on the guidance of the same Holy Spirit?

An analogy: If Christianity is like Starbucks, the Holy Spirit is like the regulatory system that ensures that all of its stores are following the same recipes and creating a consistent product company-wide. You can go to any Starbucks in the world and they make the drinks the same way, because the employees have been clearly instructed on the protocol. If a human corporation can succeed at this, should not the divine speaker-of-hearts be even more capable of directing its members to the same One Truth? Yet there are endless divisions and contentions among the church, with each group believing that the Spirit is telling them their own understanding is the perfect truth and the others are disturbingly misled.

The answer that satisfied me: There is no unification of believers because the Holy Spirit does not in fact clarify scripture to those who read it. People confuse their own thoughts and beliefs with divine guidance. The Christian organism works just like you would expect it to work if you had a 1700 year old text that had been compiled and translated in different ways and understood independently by people of many different cultures and eras. The tenets of Christianity are just as varied as the people who believe in it, which points to it being a human creation and not a divine one.

2) Bondage to sin

The premise: The Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. The works of the Flesh include adultery, uncleanness, lewdness, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, and the like. Humans, by default, are in bondage to sin from birth. They cannot overcome it. But with the saving power of Jesus and the indwelling of the Spirit, believers are liberated from sin, finally having the power to overcome any sinful pattern. Since they love God, they are motivated to avoid sinful actions which offend him -- and they have the power to do so.

The question: If all Christians possess the Spirit, and the Spirit is the only thing that has the power to change a person's actions from the works of the Flesh to the fruit of the Spirit, then shouldn't we see clear evidence of this reality in the lives of Christians compared to the rest of the world? Christians should be far and away the most loving, joyful, peaceful, kind people on the planet; and everyone else should be suffering a life of wretched sinfulness because they have no power to break away from it. This should be a clear and undeniable distinction. How do you explain the fact that Christians are just like every other group -- the most well-adjusted and healthy ones are happy, while the struggling and hurt ones are unhappy? The same is true of atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, anyone really. If the Holy Spirit is not the main determinant of who displays the Fruit of the Spirit, what is? Why do Christians remain trapped in fear, sin, and turmoil if they have been set free indeed?

An analogy: Imagine if someone taught you as a child that birds cannot fly by nature, but once they eat a specific kind of fish, they are suddenly able to fly and are not obligated to stay on the ground any longer. You grow up believing this explanation, but someday you realize that different birds have all kinds of different diets; that many non-fish-eating birds are flying, and many fish-eating birds are grounded. At this point would you not discard the dietary hypothesis and accept that what really determines a bird's ability to fly is its anatomical structure, weight, wing surface area, and the laws of physics?

The answer that satisfied me: Love, joy, peace, patience, etc. are not imparted upon human beings by the Holy Spirit. Those qualities are a part of our natural human capacity just as much as hatred, jealousy, and envy. Different qualities are cultivated in different people depending on a lot of factors, like the quality of your childhood, your mental and emotional health, and how strong and loving your community is. Exhibiting virtuous behavior has nothing to do with believing one set of ancient scriptures over another. These claims regarding the Holy Spirit's role in providing freedom from sin are a hoax. Anyone has the power to overcome destructive habits on their own, with the right understanding.

3) Creation of a broken world

The premise: God created the world according to the creation story told in Genesis. Humans were his crowning work, his children, the most beloved and significant of his creatures. He loved them and intended to live in harmony with them forever, without pain, suffering, or death. It was therefore to his great displeasure that Adam & Eve fell into sin after being tempted by Satan. Their nature was then sinful and all of their descendants would be born inherently sinful, and because sin is so reprehensible to God, they would have to be cleansed by symbolic sacrifices to be acceptable enough for his presence. The alternative, sadly, was to be sentenced to an eternity of separation from God, in Hell.

The question: Why did a loving God, who knows all things before they happen, create a world full of sin and suffering, and an eternal torment for unbelievers? Why did he allow the reality to be that only a small minority of humans who will ever exist on Earth will have access to heaven, and the rest will suffer eternally, if he loves all humans as his own children?

Maybe you've heard it's because humans had to have a choice to love him or not, otherwise it wouldn't be love. But why should that be the case? If God created love, surely he is not bound by some obligation to give humans the kind of choice that results in such chaos. He could have made the concept of love work in such a way that everyone is secure in it without needing to teeter on the edge of eternal punishment. If I can imagine that, so can God. And even if humans were to have the choice between loving him or not, why should choosing against God result in such a drastic punishment -- eternal damnation -- especially when many people on Earth never had the chance to learn about God in their brief lifespans, or were turned off to the idea of religion by very traumatic experiences which would cause our fallible minds to possibly reject God for reasons other than malicious rebellion?

Aren't there more likely explanations for the human condition other than the creation story -- that God made humans perfect but much to his chagrin a fallen angel turned into a serpent and tricked the humans away from God's perfect plan? How could he have allowed that to happen? Certainly he was aware of what Satan was doing as he did it. Certainly Adam and Eve were not the first beings to sin and rebel against God, if Lucifer already existed in his fallen state. If humans were to have any chance at a pure existence without sin, why would he allow his fallen minion to come in contact with them? If human nature was to be curious and drawn to the words of a tempter, why did God create them with that nature, instead of a nature where they would see deception for what it was and reject it? If they had refused Lucifer's attempt at corruption the first time, how many times would God have required them to be tempted? Just once, or every day until they succumbed? Then wasn't it his plan all along to end up with the miserable state of things we have now?

An analogy: I adopt a new puppy. I love this puppy, and I look forward to our companionship. I begin to train it to make good choices that will help it to stay safe and happy. But one day, I leave my puppy alone in the house, and on my way out I hold the door open to let in a rabid raccoon who is waiting outside. At the end of the day I return home and my puppy has been attacked and infected with rabies, and the raccoon fled out the window. Instead of using the power of medicine to do my best to heal the puppy and return to our original plan of a long happy existence together, I condemn it for being repulsive to me and I throw it out into the yard to suffer a protracted death, ignoring its cries of pain. Am I a good dog owner? Have I done what is fair? Is the dog to blame?

The answer that satisfied me: The creation story is a myth just like all the other creation stories that different primitive tribes believed in all around the world. It does not align with the idea that God the Creator is sovereign, benevolent, and all-knowing. It fits much more logically into the explanation that creation myths are human-invented stories to explain the origin of things they don't understand.


I never found good answers to these questions in Christianity. Maybe you haven't either (if you did, please tell me in the comments). How does that make you feel? Maybe your response is to say "God works in mysterious ways" or "we cannot fathom God with our logic, so your attempts to rationalize are invalid". If that is the case, how do you distinguish between something that is incomprehensible because it is so far above our level of consciousness, and something that is incomprehensible because it is a complete lie used to control you? If you aren't allowed to use your own human faculty of reason, your own instinct, logic, and senses, to determine what is true -- what do you have left? How do you know who to trust? If you'd grown up in Saudi Arabia or India, your same acceptance of religious authority would have undoubtedly turned you into a Muslim or a Hindu, and you would believe in it as adamantly as you do Christianity today.

If God is flawless and all-knowing, shouldn't the signature of his actions be that they are easy to understand -- because they are completely perfect, pure, and in tune with reality? Sick people are the ones who do confusing, chaotic, hurtful things. The actions of people who are intelligent, compassionate, and loving are the most easy to understand, because they have the ability to put themselves in your perspective and communicate in such a way that the important points come across clearly.

(You can find three more questions that killed my faith in this blog post.)

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Joe Omundson

how to get to know yourself better

In a previous post I explained why getting to know ourselves is so important, but how can we do that, practically? It's a pretty broad question. I can't answer that with specific instructions as the path to self-discovery is different for everyone. But there are a few things that seem to be universally important.

1) Take some space from society, spend some time truly alone. Many of us are like people who can only fall asleep with the TV blaring. We rely on the constant noise, constant input, and it feels normal. Learning to break away from it is hard. But once we become accustomed to the quiet, to being able to hear our own thoughts, returning to the TV is a shocking experience. The messages seem aggressive, intrusive, absurd. The same is true for civilized life in general. Our existence is not just who we are, it's who we are in relation to other people, and when we remove that input from other people we have more of a chance to realize what's unique about ourselves. It's like if someone only ever played bass in rehearsal with their band and never practiced alone. They might know how to mesh well with others, but taking the time to hear themselves play might reveal a lot more information that could make them a better musician.

2) Accept that you are in whatever state you are in, and that it's OK. It's not perfect and there is growing to do. But it doesn't help anything to pretend we are something we are not. We all have strengths and weaknesses, trauma and joy. Let yours be whatever they are and accept that you are still a worthy human being. Don't try to change everything all at once.

3) Learn how to notice your feelings, your body, your sensations, your thoughts; develop the capacity to gain awareness of the mind and body. There are so many different ways to do this. Is there something in your life that quiets your racing thoughts, brings your attention into the present moment, and makes you aware of your body? Make more time for that activity in your life. For me, it's been things like hiking, yoga, meditation, marijuana, psychedelics, and music. For you it might be something totally different.

4) Meet a variety of people and find the ones who have traveled down a road similar to the one you're on, and learn from their experience. We will naturally meet more of these like-minded folks as we spend more time doing activities that are specialized to our personal interests. When we have spent time on 1) - 3) we will better understand which people we want to emulate and why.

These things all require time and energy. If you are constantly in a state of exhaustion from your busy life, you won't have time for this work. Ask yourself why you are so busy and what you can do to make more time for yourself. Some people stay busy because they have no other choice, as they have people depending on them and if they slack off there will be consequences. To be honest I'm not very familiar with that situation and I don't have good advice for how to work around that. But other people stay busy either by choice, or out of fear, or precisely because it keeps them from having time for the steps I mentioned. If you are one of those people you have to decide that your own happiness and well-being are important, and are worth the discomfort of spending time in a space where you don't know exactly what you will learn about yourself.

Through this process you might realize that you truly dread some aspect of your life, that it takes the spirit out of you and defeats you. Maybe it's a relationship, a job, a religion, a place. If you really want to find fulfillment you have to be willing to make difficult changes to major parts of your life. How bad do you want it?

I wanted it really bad. Between the ages of 21-26 I left my Christian faith which had been so important to me growing up, I left a marriage with an excellent woman, and I quit a stable engineering career, because through all the time I'd spent examining myself I knew what I really wanted was to travel alone and see the world for myself and make my own judgments about life. I'm glad I trusted my gut because even though these were hard decisions (OK -- the faith-leaving and the divorce were hard decision, quitting my job was an easy one), they freed up so much space to explore and grow in new directions.

I prioritized my own instinctual well-being over the fears that would have held me back. I don't regret leaving those things behind because the things I gained were so much more me. My priorities, my interests. Sounds selfish, right? It was. But without a period of self-motivated exploration I don't see how someone can lay a strong foundation for the rest of their life. We do our best work when we are working on something that we are passionate about, obsessed. We love best when we know our own boundaries, limitations, and desires. It's worth taking the time to customize our lifestyles to meet our own needs, so that we can understand ourselves and then give back in the greatest way possible.
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Friday, October 7, 2016

Joe Omundson


On Tuesday morning I woke up, had breakfast, went to the donation-based 10AM gentle yoga class, and then drove straight to my favorite camping area in the desert. Along for the ride in my glove compartment were 2 hits of LSD. The forecast was sunny and clear.

This was my 4th LSD trip, and my first time taking more than 1 hit. I ingested them just before noon, and I smoked a bit of cannabis as I was waiting for the effects to come on.

Having a solar panel on my car to power my stereo was brilliant. There was nobody around for a considerable distance, so I turned up the volume and my car became my reference point for the rest of my trip; no matter where I went I would hear the music and know where to return, not that it was difficult to find my car but it was an extra bit of insurance.

I started to feel the acid after maybe 45 minutes or an hour. I was lying in my car when the altered state of consciousness brought about by LSD distinguished itself from the THC I was already feeling. I am not sure how to describe this sensation for anyone who has not tried psychedelics; I think it would be like trying to describe the experience of dreaming or dying. The best way I can describe it is that it overrides a lot of the habitual neural networks your brain likes to use. When something comes to mind, you don't think about it in the typical way... you see more options, your filters are removed, you make connections with other ideas that didn't seem related before. Things you never noticed jump out at you. And your normal logical pathways for navigating the world don't make sense anymore. For me, music triggers certain emotions more directly, details become fascinating, and thoughts that I normally repress float to the surface.

I spent the next 5 hours within the general vicinity of my car. I had my music library on shuffle and noticed my emotions being highly affected by the kind of song that was being played. A metal song would play and I would connect with my grief and more intense feelings; a house song would come on and I'd want to dance. I would go in cycles where I would want to be walking around looking at things and vibing with the music, and then I would want to withdraw into my car and turn the volume down and relax and comfort myself.

I had stronger visual alterations than on any trip I've previously taken. I would look out over the rocks and trees, and all of them would be shifting, moving around like ocean swells. At the peak of it, my vision had a time delay. If I moved my arm in front of my face, I would see trails behind it. This was pretty entertaining. My vision was constantly blurring and unblurring, especially when I tried to do things like change the song on my phone. I didn't really see enhanced colors or geometric shapes or anything like that though.

I saw my life from more of a zoomed out perspective. There were cycles of many different timescales circling around; life and death, birth and rebirth, cause and effect and cause again. I thought about people, love, feelings, possibilities.

At one point I was on my mattress and was feeling very withdrawn, almost guilty for having music playing. I realized I was feeling something like shame simply for taking up space with my life in general. It was helpful to notice this because I recognized how absurd it was. I got up to move around and I felt more motivated to find my niche and fill it well, to become more responsible with my duties, to learn how to meet my needs abundantly and pour over into other people. I thought a lot about a certain woman and realized the depth of my desire to form a new relationship.

An interesting thing happened where I felt like there were other personalities inside my mind. I was interacting with them, or becoming them. One of them was like a young girl, quiet gentle and playful, whispering secrets and laughing. Another was like a young woman warrior who has been through some painful trauma but is learning to be strong and proud again. I thought this was interesting but didn't think much of it, until the next day I happened upon this page about tulpas.  I'm going to explore this idea more fully before I write any more about it, but I am very intrigued by it and might start working on creating a tulpa!

At my mom's house, she has one of those picture frames where there's a photo from each of my school pictures from kindergarten through high school. Between 4th and 5th grade, there is a shift that happens in my smile where it goes from being a warm natural thing to something I clearly had to force myself to do. I think that was the end of my "childhood", when my parents separated, and somehow feeling free to be happy stopped being a part of my character. I couldn't produce a natural smile because I didn't feel that way on a base level. It was further compounded when my parents were frustrated with me for not taking good smiling pictures anymore; I felt like, really, I'm hurting like this and you're upset that my photos don't look as happy as you want? Is the appearance all that matters? And I think after that, hiding my full smile became a matter of determination. I felt like to reveal my full smile was pandering to their unfair wishes. Like if I learned to take that kind of photo I would be in danger of forgetting my true feelings just to make them happy.

As the sun got lower in the sky, the lighting was perfect, I had a nice camera, and I figured I would try some self portraits. I felt anxiety as I held the camera in front of my face and the familiar urge to panic or make a forced smile. But I took a series of shots, focused on feeling my full warmth and letting it show. I'm 29... why should I have this irrational fear of appearing happy in photos? Do I still need to get back at my parents by limiting my joy in this way? Isn't it time I accepted my own happiness and allowed others to enjoy it too?

The weather was beautiful. There was no haze in the sky at all. I was looking at the La Sal mountain range on the horizon and it was totally clear. As the sun lowered and the light became golden, I grabbed my camera and ran around for an hour snapping photos.

Soon, it was 8PM. It was dark and growing colder. I knew I still had a few more hours before I'd be able to fall asleep, so I pulled my mattress out onto the slickrock, put on a favorite album, got under my down quilt and watched the stars. I also brought out my computer and started looking through some of the photos I'd taken. Sometimes I got up to take more photos.

Eventually, probably around midnight, I fell asleep. In the morning I woke up at first light and started driving the 25-30 miles back home. I stopped a couple times to take photos of the morning golden hour. I reflected on my experience and felt grateful. I returned to town with a greater sense of self-acceptance and a renewed desire to work on my life to build it in the direction I want to go.

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