Sunday, May 29, 2016

Joe Omundson

nostalgia & connection

A few hours ago I was on Facebook and I saw someone's video tour of Casa de Luna (the Andersons' trail angel house on the PCT) and the manzanita forest behind it. Dozens of tents pitched in nooks and crannies, hikers milling about, sitting on chairs and talking or playing horseshoes. Those were the days, being in that community where there were no pretenses (fewer, anyway) and nothing special you had to do in order to participate.

Just before I wrote this, I was listening to the latest episode of Sounds of the Trail, a thru-hiking podcast which one of my friends created, and she was interviewing several hikers as they were getting ready to start their thru-hikes. One of them mentioned the first 20 miles of the PCT, Hauser Creek and the climb up toward Lake Morena, and it was like a kick in the gut. I can still remember exactly how that place felt on the first day, looking across the valley and seeing the trail rising on the other side, sun glinting off of hikers' tiny Chrome Dome umbrellas, taking a break with Dayglo and Testament, Testament's simple excitement when he said "We get to poop outside again!". I still remember the first time I saw Testament, how he peered down at me over the edge of a balcony at the trail angel's house in San Diego, saying nothing, his wild hair and huge unkempt beard making him look insane. Little did I know of the journey we would take together, or that we would pledge to hike the PCT together in 2064 if we are both still alive.

Nostalgia hits me hard sometimes and it makes me feel lonely. It makes me wonder if I'm doing the right thing now. Those times hiking in the desert, finally living my dream of backpacking across the country, in the company of new friends... I feel so sad that those times are gone. Of course, that is a good thing, because it also means I am glad they happened. I know I could easily prevent having that kind of nostalgic longing by simply never doing anything amazing. But what kind of life would that be? In the very best case scenario, I will have a lifetime full of amazing times that I can look back on longingly when I die. But still, it always comes to an end. How can that ever feel OK? Other people seem so unconcerned about death. They choose not to think about it too much because they know they can't control it and that it's a totally natural part of life. Am I missing some secret that makes impermanence feel OK for everyone else? Or do I simply grasp it in a tangible way that most other people have yet to understand?

Overall I am happy to be here in Moab. It feels right, and I trust that it is. I have written many words to my friends about all the reasons I am excited for this change. I've only been here about 10 days (14 by the time this goes live), and the fact that it feels much longer indicates to me that I have accomplished quite a bit in making this place my home. It's been a full time.

Of course, nothing ever feels perfect. Those times I'm nostalgic for, they never felt perfect either when I was living them. I knew that I would be deceiving myself if I thought that all my old pains in Portland would vanish when I moved here. So it is no surprise to me that I still feel lonely and have a longing for connection. I know someday I will look back on these weeks fondly. It doesn't make it feel much easier right now though.

I think it was during the 2nd summer of my PCT hike when I finally realized just how important it is to be in the company of people I love. All those weeks of hiking solo, hundreds of miles ahead of the herd, showed me very plainly the limits of how much meaning I could find on my own. One hiker on the podcast summed it up perfectly; he's done a lot of solo hiking and is looking for more company this time, because it's so much more fun to remember these experiences with people. Otherwise, it's "remember that one time, when... I was all alone and you weren't there?" I was cracking up. Now I see that it is worth working hard to learn how to be a good friend and to make certain compromises for the sake of friendships. I'm not talking about compromising anything that is essential for my happiness, just little things like logistics and expectations. Love, wherever you can find it, is such a sacred thing and I am working to overcome the things that block me from experiencing it fully.

I am trying to find friends and connection here, in the ways that I know how. I don't doubt that eventually it will happen. I haven't been here even two weeks. But from where I am now, that future feels so far away. I find that I turn to the internet in times like this for comfort. I email my friends; I blog; I post photos; I read Facebook; I interact on Reddit; I even started using Tinder and Whisper again in hopes of finding nearby people to hang out with. The stupid thing is that I'm probably sitting there checking my damn phone while all of my potential friends are walking by right in front of me. Is it that hard to say "hi" and start a conversation?

Maybe I shouldn't be too hard on myself. As I think through all of the closest friends I have right now, it seems like I met most of them through the internet, whether it was a forum, Craigslist, Facebook, or a blog. Even if I met them in person, the friendship probably developed significantly through digital interaction. My PCT friends are the exception, but interestingly enough I don't have consistent conversations with many of them online, which makes it hard to feel like they are present in my life, even though I know that when I see them again it will be just like old times. I'm not sure if my dependence on the internet for the development of friendships is natural because I am a writer and an independent person, or if it indicates some kind of neurosis.

It's not like I don't meet people, I already found a yoga class I enjoy and have had some cool talks with the teacher. I go for walks through the park most days and 2/3 of the people exchange a smile and a greeting. Still, I can tell that I'm missing some part of the equation. I don't know how to move past that superficial greeting, slow down, and actively connect. Or maybe I do and I just haven't had the right opportunity yet. I don't really know, that's why it's confusing. A couple days ago I went on a hike and then I parked my car and walked by a bunch of groups of rock climbers and said hi to some of them. But I didn't stop to chat even when they seemed friendly.

In any case it's not productive to be afraid of meeting people when that is exactly what I want and need. Today I found out that two of my friends who I met on the PCT, who I admire greatly for their ability to connect with new people, are probably coming through Moab in a week and I am stoked to see them. I want to pay attention to how they interact and see if I can't learn something.

Well, at this point I am only writing because I'm having trouble falling asleep and it is comforting. I'm wishing I had some weed. Maybe tomorrow I will visit the climbers again, because I know they can help me out in that department, and it could be an ice breaker for a slightly longer interaction.
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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Joe Omundson


The dream began with my own death. Several people, including a member of my immediate family, gave me a pill to take, insisting it was my time, though I did not understand why. With a sense of helplessness I took the pill. I began to die, and my perspective changed so that I was observing life as a 2D timeline, looking down from above. I saw the events of my death unfolding, represented by icon-like versions of people superimposed on the axis of the timeline, with numbers marking the days and years. As I died, people grasped on to the image of my body and it was pulled farther down the timeline, away from their reach. It represented the grieving process as people struggled with my death and then were forced to let go and move on. Next to the axis of earth-years, my own perceived years had their own axis, and the scale began to stretch out as I transcended mortality.

 After this, I knew I was dead, and I wasn’t sure what would happen to my consciousness. There was a woman the same age as myself who had also died; I did not know who she was but I knew we had been placed together to provide a reference for each other’s experience. We were going through it together, though we had no contact initially. I remember having the sense that I was half-reclining in a shallow riverbed, as ethereal water maybe a foot deep rushed past me, and in a way it represented time. I waited there for my end, thinking I had no alternative. I seemed to be existing in a new dimension, since the time-space continuum I had lived my life in was now contained in two dimensions, yet I continued to experience a 3-dimensional spatial reality. It was somehow unbounded and undefined, as though the river in which I reclined was superimposed on outer space.

 I had something of an eternal presence and when I raised myself above the level of the water to look down on it, I realized I could move through the timeline, which was aligned with the river. I waded upstream and viewed the time of my death, and I could see what my loved ones were doing. I was surprised that I still had this level of awareness and motility, because I had expected to disappear quickly. But I seemed to be an autonomous entity who could truly perceive all of time.

 I longed for my life, and I felt lonely in my separation from it. But I knew it was impossible to go back or make contact, and the living humans were entirely unaware of this extra dimension I inhabited. The river kept flowing around me.

 Then the woman was with me, and I think we both sensed that though we were alone, and though this afterlife would not last forever, we had each other. We said nothing but seemed to think, “Shall we connect? It seems possible for us to do. Let’s live in what we have now and let go of the past.” Upstream, the water was flowing out of a room-sized opening in a building.  She made her way toward it, and I saw her stumble once or twice into the water, and she flickered as though losing her permanence; it indicated the beginning of our process of decay into nothingness. We couldn’t know how much longer we had.

 But it didn’t matter. We had now. I followed her. I knew that just inside the building was a set of stairs to the right, and a bedroom at the top of those. She began to take off her clothes and I saw her naked breast as she rounded the corner. We were of the same mind, and as I followed her inside, I woke up.


As I lay on my mattress inside my car, camped out by myself at 7,200’, I reflected on what I had just experienced and thought about my life. I recognized that I have a deep yearning for connection and intimacy, and that I am keenly aware of the shortness of life. So are my choices in line with that? If I only had one day to live and my desire was connection, how would I do it differently? Would I walk up to people and gaze into their eyes, unafraid of the consequences? The dream made me want to live my life, now, the same way my dream self might have lived it given the chance to return to his mortal life. He would have been unafraid of embarrassment because he had experienced eternity. I don’t want to wait until I’m dead to realize “I have the people around me, and I can choose to be with them.”
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Monday, May 23, 2016

Joe Omundson


I first smoked cannabis when I was 22 years old. Growing up, shaped by Christianity and the DARE program, I had a strong aversion to the idea of consuming any drug, so I never sought it out in high school. But in college I started to enjoy drinking beer, and I knew a couple people who smoked pot and it didn’t seem to be ruining their lives.

One day, I was helping a couple of friends move some things with my truck, and when we were at their house, they went in another room and got high. Driving back into town, I was expecting them to become crazy or act strangely, but they seemed normal and relaxed. I asked them what being high felt like and they didn’t have much to say about it; just that they felt mellow. Seeing the drug in action removed some of my fears about it and made me more curious to try it, and I started looking for my opportunity.

 Both of these guys were my coworkers at a pizza place, and I knew one of them sold weed. So I asked him for a sample so I could try it out and he seemed happy to give me some. I remember nervously transporting it home, unwrapping that foil-wrapped nugget for the first time, the way it smelled, and feeling like it sure wasn’t very much material. Really, these little chunks of green will get me high? OK...

 My wife at the time hadn’t tried it either, but was similarly open to it, so we sat on a couch in our spare bedroom and I stuffed some of the weed into my tobacco pipe. We weren’t quite sure how much we were supposed to inhale, so we kept passing it back and forth, sucking the flame into the bowl and breathing out little puffs of smoke. “Is it working? Is that enough? I guess we just keep going.”

 Ten or fifteen minutes later, I started to feel it. I don’t remember much of a physical sensation, but suddenly I kept losing my train of thought when I was talking. I’d start a sentence and then completely forget what my subject was. This was a very strange sensation and it made me feel silly, I started laughing, and my wife thought I was making it up for a second, but then I think she started to feel it too. That was a fun night. We had a lot of the typical stoner experiences: we ordered a large pizza, which we finished, and then we ate an entire batch of brownies. We had some disjointed conversations and cracked ourselves up. I don’t remember much beyond that, maybe we played video games or watched something, and marveled at our new perceptions.

 After my first experience, something became clear to me: if alcohol is legal, there’s no reason for marijuana to be illegal. I felt much more in control when I was high, than I would have if I had been equivalently drunk. For me, smoking weed was everything I liked about getting drunk, with none of the downsides: it was fun, it altered my perception, but I didn’t wake up hungover or lose my inhibition to the point that I did things I regretted. And so I was an instant fan.

 Not long after my first experience, we were walking from our apartment to our car to go to a restaurant, when I jumped over a patch of pavement, slipped, fell, and sprained my ankle. We drove to the restaurant hoping it would feel better, but it didn’t, so we came back home; this was when I smoked pot for the second time. I thought it might help with the pain, and though I knew I had to be careful with my ankle, I already felt safe enough with the drug that I was confident I would not lose my balance going up and down the stairs or put weight on it accidentally. Sure enough, my balance was good and I was able to be careful with my ankle.

 I remember the first time I went to a friend’s house and smoked with him. We took turns using a “waterfall bong” we made out of a Gatorade bottle, filling the bottle with water and then letting it drain out of a hole in the bottom. As the water vacated it sucked in smoke through the lit bowl on top. Then we removed the lid and took in all the smoke at once. I coughed heavily and thought I would vomit, but didn’t. We had plans to ride bikes to the Chinese buffet but this was the highest I had ever been and I did not feel up to the task. I remember standing in a central room with several doors, turning around in circles, unable to remember which one led where or how to tell them apart. Then I crashed on the couch as his roommates played Halo. A few hours later, I felt totally fine and drove home.

 Over the next couple of years, smoking pot became a common activity for me. I never felt comfortable being an all-day stoner or driving while high like many people do, but I frequently enjoyed it as a relaxing evening activity, like having a couple beers. While many people would probably not like to feel disoriented, I enjoyed it particularly for that reason. Whereas normally I had a tendency to obsessively think about things, staying up way too late to read things on the internet, it knocked out my ability to focus and instead I would spend time lying on my back, listening to a full album, exploring sensations in my body, stretching, breathing, and experiencing emotions that I would otherwise block out.

 I contacted myself in a more direct way than I had previously known was possible. Getting high is actually what planted the seed for my interest in yoga. I essentially began to discover yoga poses on my own, simply because the way they felt in my body was so remarkable. Eventually I even overcame my fear of dancing, which I enjoy very much now, and I don’t know if that would have happened otherwise. In this stage, marijuana was a useful tool for me. It expanded my consciousness and broke down some barriers that I didn’t know were there. It helped me make connections between certain thoughts and feelings that I hadn't realized before. I am grateful for the way it helped me change my life.

 Gradually, though, my brain adapted to the altered state. I remember one time in particular when I was able to regain control of my concentration. I looked at a wall and told myself, “everything is just like it normally is. You just have a chemical affecting your brain.” In that moment I felt almost sober again. I felt able to transcend the influence of the chemical, I was aware of it as a filter on normal reality rather than perceiving a different reality. As time went on, I was able to become more and more functional while high. I learned how to read, write, and carry on conversations. Though the drug still had the effect of making a maze out of my normally orderly thought paths, I learned how to dance with it and ultimately still get to the destination I intended, and I became efficient at this new mode of cognition. Soon it didn’t seem to impede anything I wanted to do; I could write 5 pages of coherent text, I could go for a 15 mile hike.

 With this added functionality, marijuana became less of a magical thing for me, and more something I did out of habit; or because, “why not?”. I went back to spending hours on my computer at night, the high simply adding another layer of challenge or intrigue. I still had a lot of good times with it, but I was starting to notice that it made me more socially anxious. I was reluctant to go out in public, or if I did, I felt paranoid that people would notice I was altered. Perhaps marijuana was not the cause of the anxiety, and it simply revealed to me the underlying social anxiety in my life by removing my ability to ignore it.

When I through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I smoked a lot of weed in those months because I never felt a need to be sober. I didn’t have to drive a car or be around a lot of people. It was just me and the trail, and it gave my restless mind something to put effort toward. It made some of the landscapes I walked through feel even more dreamlike, and there were certain times I had to make sure I was actually awake. That was nice, but it had the downside of making me more anxious in those times when I did come across other people, so I probably kept myself more aloof and isolated.

 I noticed some other things about my interaction with cannabis on the PCT. At one point, I ran out of weed for about a week, and in that week I started to record some audio clips of myself musing about various topics. I was happy with that as a form of self expression. But as soon as I got more weed, I never made another one. It seemed to inhibit my ability to produce creative work. Toward the end of my hike, I chose to do away with it again for a while, and that turned out to be one of the best times I had. I found a fun group to hike with and I never missed the weed.

 Soon after I got back to Portland after finishing the trail, marijuana started to be sold legally in Oregon. This changed my relationship with it again. In the past, it was a treasured substance, something you had to make a special appointment to buy; it came in a Ziploc bag and you bought it from a friend. You had to be a little bit sneaky about it. You were always aware of how much you had left, and sometimes you ran out for a while.

 These days, if you live in Portland, whenever you run out you can probably walk just a few blocks and choose from 3 different dispensaries to refill your supply, with similar prices to pre-legalization days. It comes carefully measured, analyzed, tested, and packaged. You always know which strain you’re getting and you have a lot of options. You can walk out the door and drive home with it without any fear of getting caught.

 Though this took some more of the magic out of it, I support legalization of marijuana and other drugs, and here’s why: when it’s not a criminal act you have to be sneaky about, when it’s accepted and accessible, your relationship to it changes. It becomes something that you can experience and analyze in the light of day just like all your other decisions. When you can admit to something openly and participate in it publicly, it becomes harder to hide from yourself the frequency with which you use it. It is easier to realize, “wow, I am buying this stuff all the time and using it every day, even though it makes me anxious. I wonder if I should keep doing that?”.

In the months that I lived in Portland and was working on my album, I smoked every night and many afternoons (other than 11 sober days at the Vipassana retreat), and though it was sometimes a nice creative aid for my work, I ended up in old patterns -- sitting in a windowless room until 4 in the morning looking up random stuff online, and groaning when I finally went to bed like “why did I do that again?”. It wouldn’t be fair to blame that entirely on marijuana, because I was escaping from other personal issues too, but it didn’t really seem like it helped anything. Sometimes I felt like it made me inert.

 I decided not to bring any marijuana when I moved to Moab earlier this month. Partly because I wanted to make a change, but also simply because I didn’t want to deal with the stress of carrying around an illegal substance in a conservative state (Utah). I did accidentally bring one pipe, and it still had a partial bowl loaded in it, so I enjoyed it in Washington the night after I left Portland. But it’s been about 11 days since then, and I’m noticing some nice benefits. I feel more socially capable and less paranoid about people approaching me. My lungs feel better, the slight wheeze is gone. I have more clarity in general. For me, right now, it seems like a good time not to be using marijuana regularly.

 Is cannabis bad? No. Is it good? No. It simply is what it is, it is useful when it is useful, and it is harmful in the ways that it is harmful. It is like any other habit that people develop, whether it’s a substance like coffee, chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes, muscle relaxers, or harder drugs; or whether it’s obsessively healthy eating, adrenaline seeking, gambling, or watching TV. We keep doing it because we perceive a benefit or because it helps to relieve some kind of neurosis, even though it could be considered an addiction and might have some kind of negative side effect. It’s a trade-off. Everybody uses some kind of thing like this in one way or another. And since people have all different flavors of neuroses, different substances and activities fill those needs most satisfyingly for different people. So you have some people who are constantly amped up on coffee, and other people who always want to be mellowed out by weed.

 It is probably no surprise that those who have had a lifetime of abuse, neglect, and disconnection gravitate toward drugs like heroine and meth, the ones that alter reality the most. The pain they live with every day is so immense that they seek a radical escape. They don’t deserve to be shamed for that, because they are essentially living their lives in the same way we all are. It’s just that their drug of choice is considered socially unacceptable and we punish them for doing it, even though they are the ones most in need of help and not further shaming. We should try to help them heal the underlying trauma that drives them to desire hard drugs, not throw them in jail for it. Drug addiction is a medical issue and not a criminal one.

I will certainly smoke marijuana in the future, as I still enjoy its effects and think it can have a good purpose. But now I’d rather be the person who uses it occasionally and only needs a hit or two to get totally blazed, than for it to be a background habit that I rely on every day. I think that’s actually a more sacred, respectful, and beneficial way for me to use it.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Joe Omundson

image vs. reality

There is a man who only values his life to the same degree that he believes other people value it. He puts all of his effort into appearing that he is healthy and happy, to create an impression of worth for his peers, as this is what makes him feel worthy; but he neglects the opportunity to work toward actually becoming a full person. He impresses a lot of people with his showy, generous actions at first, and people put their trust in him, but eventually it is recognized that his life is a deceptive veneer, and he loses everyone close to him who believed his lies. Having no real capacity for growth, or sense of self worth, he eventually shrivels into a confused, desperate version of the man he could be.


There is a group of people who are lost in the woods, and it grows cold as afternoon progresses into evening. They decide to stay put, thinking it better to brave a cold night than to become more lost wandering around in the dark.

One man from the group realizes that this is his chance to be a hero. Finally -- people will tell stories about his bravery and generous leadership. He quickly builds a fire by gathering dry grass and leaves, lighting them, and saying “Look how brightly my fire burns! Circle around and warm yourselves by it.” The fire grows as tall as the man and crackles loudly. Many people in the group think “Wow, look at this big fire! Thank goodness, he seems to know how to provide for us.”

But in a minute, the flames are already fading, because the burning grass has had nothing more substantial to ignite. The man nimbly dashes between patches of grass in order to demonstrate his physical ability to provide fuel for his fire, saying “Don’t worry, this fire will be great!”.

Over the next hour his existence becomes a frantic task of rushing about to gather grass and leaves, and in this manner he maintains his big, bright flames. Others are concerned that the fire keeps dying quickly, but when they express their observation, the man replies “Aren’t you grateful for the work I’ve done for you? Why don’t you trust me? I’m providing you with fire, would you rather I don’t save your life?” Ashamed to have offended the selfless man, they become silent.

In the meantime, a wise woman recognizes the folly of his method of fire-building, and senses that her knowledge will only be ignored by him. Having built many fires before, she understands the importance of gathering a sizable amount of fuel before starting her fire. Knowing that the crowd is too captured by the man to break away and help her, she begins making trips into the forest by herself, gathering some grass and leaves, but also twigs, sticks, branches, limbs, and logs. She fetches many armfuls of heavy wood. She sorts her materials by her fire pit, and then starts to place the tinder into her own fire ring, carefully arranging the smaller sticks and branches on top. The grass-gathering man briefly notices her efforts and scoffs to himself, “look at this woman who is so slow to start her fire. All this fuss and tedious work and no flames to show for it. Her fire will never be as grand as mine, and she is a fool for not joining my fire like these other people.” He makes a joke at her expense, the crowd laughs nervously, and some of them try to call her over to join them. She doesn’t appear to register their words.

As the sun sets, the people surrounding the fire of grass and leaves are still shivering in the cold because the fire is putting out very little actual heat. The man doesn’t notice their discomfort because he is so busy with his effort. Some of the group start trying to add grass and sticks themselves, but the man scolds them for interfering. Whenever someone tries to help, he insists that he do the work himself. “Just relax and enjoy yourself while I provide for you! Can’t you see I’ve had this under control the whole time?”

Eventually, he becomes exhausted from having to run farther and farther to find more grass, and collapses near the fire. Soon, nothing is left but a lukewarm pile of smoking ash, and in the dark the group begins to notice a growing light a short distance away. The woman has patiently nurtured a fire which is burning steadily, and she is relaxing next to it, warm and comfortable, and waves them over with a smile. Relieved, the freezing crowd migrates to her, and they gratefully begin to warm themselves.

As the temperature plummets, the man remains shivering on the ground by the remnants of his fire, too proud to join the others and admit that his methods were unrealistic. Instead, he grows bitter and delusional. “Why did everybody leave? Why didn’t they like me and my fire? They should have helped me maintain the bright flames. They must be cruel, stupid, worthless people. Imagine my misfortune at being stranded with such a group of idiots. My fire could have been great if they hadn’t stopped believing in me. This woman sabotaged my image, and turned the group against me intentionally. I hate her.” Deep down, he believes that everyone hates and rejects him, so he feels that his life has lost its meaning.

Everyone calls for him to join them at the warm fire, but no matter what they say they cannot make the choice for him. Some of the crowd come back to him in the cold and try to convince him that he needs to warm himself, but too proud to admit failure, he insists that he is perfectly comfortable resting as he is. Though the others can see that this is not true, he cannot be swayed, and when they attempt to pick him up and carry him over to save his life, he strikes at them, crying out that he is being treated wrongly. The others sadly give up and return to the warm fire, as they are beginning to become hypothermic themselves. The temperature continues to drop, and the violently shaking man loses consciousness for the last time. In the morning, everyone has survived the misadventure except for the man who placed more importance on his image than on his own life.


Don’t waste your life trying to create a favorable image. Spend your time working on yourself according to what you need to grow strong. It might not look glamorous, and it might take a long time, but you are building a foundation for what is to come. When all of your needs have been understood and met, your fire has been lit, and it is growing into a stable, warm, glowing thing, you will be glad for your humble work. You will be able to relax by your fire, create nourishing food, share warmth and laughter with loved ones, and feel secure knowing that the fuel you need for the future is already at hand. Those who have benefited from your wisdom will also gain strength and experience, and soon they will be eager to share in your work.
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Monday, May 2, 2016

Joe Omundson


A number of my friends grew up in secular homes and decided at at early age that they didn’t believe in God. For them atheism was an obvious conclusion and they never once felt conflicted about it. They have very little empathy for anyone who believes in a God; why would an intelligent adult willfully subscribe to such an unlikely set of supernatural beliefs? It legitimately baffles them, and the only reasonable conclusion they can come up with is that the believer is extremely gullible, enjoys deception, or is maybe just plain stupid or delusional.

I know being a believer is more complicated than that, because I believed in God very seriously throughout my childhood and my first adult years, and I was a fairly smart person who wanted to know the truth. What these atheists don’t take into account is the power of brainwashing and the exploitation of common emotional and logical fallacies.

This post is mainly intended for people who already agree with my views on the (in)validity of religion. I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about their faith here.

Growing up Christian is like growing up believing in Santa Claus. Everyone you trust tells you there's a magical man somewhere who you can’t see, and he notices what you do during the day and he feels a certain way about your actions. Your parents convince you it’s true from the time you’re an infant, so it feels like the most natural thing in the world to believe. At this age your parents are loading your brain with all kinds of stories, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between the true ones and the false ones. Kids love stories.

Unlike Santa, though, you are taught that Jesus is God, and has perfect wisdom. God knows everything, is always perfect, is capable of literally anything, and his mysterious actions are beyond questioning. You quickly realize there's a lot more at stake, being in God’s good standing, than in Santa’s -- you’re looking at an eternity of either joyful pleasure, or agonizing torture, after you die. The only way to escape hell is to believe in your heart that Christ is your personal savior (AKA join the church). You are taken to weekly classes where trustworthy adults continually reinforce the truthfulness of Jesus, the Bible, and the church. They tell you that any viewpoint which opposes Christianity - or even differs from it - must come from Satan, the master of hell, himself. They tell little kids that Satan has terrifying demon minions who travel the Earth looking for people to possess and corrupt, and the only way to be safe from them is to be strong in your relationship with Jesus so you can command them to leave. That you have zero ability of your own to be a good person or make positive changes unless you accept Jesus in your heart. That without Jesus, there is only sin, suffering, hatred, and death. And by the way - all of your non-Christian friends and family are going to suffer forever unless they accept Jesus too.

So, which one will you choose? Love, happiness, and peace? Or torment and pain forever? Of course kids will promise to dedicate their lives to Jesus when it's framed this way. When I was 6 years old I called my pastor and told him I wanted to be baptized. At that age I had already decided that my best choice was to symbolize my own death to myself, and to fill my little soul with the life of Jesus instead, so that I would be acceptable and have worth as an individual.

Once kids have been brought to the point where they believe that the most important part of their life is their belief in Jesus, as taught by their church, it becomes easy to control them. There is a whole social structure of expectations based around what you should do and not do, and usually it had less to do with what the Bible says and more to do with church traditions, American values, and whatever is convenient for adults to want their kids to do. Pastors have a huge position of power when they stand in front of their churches, presenting emotionally charged monologues on the way life should be and supporting it with passages from the infallible book of pure truth, which can be picked and chosen at will to support virtually any viewpoint.

Every once in a while someone in the church tells a shocking story about a friend or family member who refuses to accept the truth of the church, or has decided to leave it. Of course, it is couched in great concern and love, asking for prayer for the well being of their eternal soul, but most of the time the true sentiment of the announcement is “I am ashamed to know somebody like this, and I want you all to know about this person’s flawed beliefs.” Everyone knows that if you stop believing in Jesus, you are going to be thought of differently by everyone around you. You are going to be perceived as sick, influenced by evil, and a threat to everything good. Your own family might disown you as a human being, your own community might exclude you forever. So if you have doubts, you better not express them too strongly. If you start to think this whole thing might not be real, you better not let on. It is vitally important for your beliefs and opinions to match with the rest of the group.

Meanwhile, the pastor and at least one of the elders are cheating on their wives and lying about it to maintain an image of holiness. The pastor is hooking up with other men while preaching about Sodom and Gomorrah.

This was my experience growing up in a small Baptist church for the first 11 or so years of my life, and it was definitely crazy, but from what I've heard from ex-Mormon and ex-Jehovah's Witness people I've met, it could have been worse. In my "hot springs craziness in Arizona" post, I told a story of a guy who has lost his faith in Mormonism but continues to go to church for fear of being excommunicated by his family. His wife thinks he is being controlled by Satan. This kind of stuff tears families apart and it happens all the time.

If you have ever wondered why some atheists are bitterly angry against anything that represents religion, it’s probably because they had a childhood similar to what I am describing here. It’s the analogue to the 11 year old who loudly announces that they don’t believe in Santa Claus -- they’re not still tricked by that illusion like a dumb kid! Nobody appreciates realizing they were tricked. Amplify that angst 100 times and you’ll approach the feeling of leaving Christian brainwashing. It’s so much more than setting aside a fictional-but-harmless kid’s story, it’s the realization that a major part of your identity and your core beliefs about yourself are founded in lies that were meant to keep you subservient and obedient, to make sure you believe that you can’t do anything good on your own apart from God’s influence. To keep you listening to the pastor's social control messages and giving up 10% of your salary and voting a certain way and enforcing your religious beliefs on your community. And everyone you trusted was smiling and feeding you this shit for every meal, saying if you didn't eat it (and love it) you'd die.

Some people start off feeling angry at their parents for raising them in the church, but eventually learn to hate Christianity, itself, when they realize their parents were brainwashed too. There’s not really one individual who can be blamed for the way kids are coerced into joining religious groups. It’s a system-sized problem. Christianity (like other religions) is, in a sense, a living entity, an idea which seeks to keep itself from dissolving into entropy and chaos. It is self-organizing, self-promoting, self-growing, and it does so by influencing human brains to carry out its bidding. A religion is the sum total of the thought patterns of all its believers, which interact as a hive mind to form a wider system of intelligence. This is the truth an atheist recognizes; we are far from being “anti-Jesus” or “pro-Satan” (who are seen as merely fictional characters). What’s real is the impact this system of human thought has on the lives of many millions of people around the world, who are raised to perceive the world in delusional ways, who are robbed of their own sense of agency and worth from a young age, who are cast into isolation if they dare to express an opinion contrary to the group.
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