I’ve finished reading through my middle and high school journals.
I read 20 journals and hundreds of pages, following my thoughts from age 12 to age 23, from Edmonds, WA to Boston, MA. It took me more than 90 hours. The journals were largely hard to read: I was sometimes euphoric and happy and dramatic during those years, but I was mostly plagued by deep conflict. I was an anxious kid, an over-thinker, and, according to my high school therapist, “uncomfortably emotionally intelligent.” This hyper-awareness of my and others’ emotions meant that I was upset a lot; in fact, I more than once wondered if I was simply destined to be an unhappy person forever.
Part of this discomfort had to do with religion.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian household and went to Christian school from 3rd grade onward. I asked Jesus into my heart in kindergarten and followed all the rules laid out for me, praying each night before bed (often 3 times, in case I did it wrong) and memorizing bible verses weekly. While religion gave me some wonderful things, like an appreciation of community and service-oriented values, much of my childhood angst in the journals is centered on religion. From the age of 12, I had doubts about whether of not Christianity was for me. I rarely voiced those doubts, though, except for in my journals– I worried that if I revealed that I wasn’t entirely sure about the whole thing, I would go to hell.
I questioned religion constantly from the age of 12, but my first big moment of disbelief occurred during my freshman year bible class.
My bible teacher preached fire and brimstone every day, often calling us “god’s poopie diapers.” I hated her, hated the class, hated that I had to regurgitate incorrect facts in order to get an A on my report card. One day, she told us that if we didn’t follow the beatitudes, we were going to hell. I should mention here that I was a very good religious scholar– I’d never known anything other than evangelical christianity so by age 14, I had the 101 knowledge down pat. As far as I knew, you went to hell if you hadn’t asked Jesus into your heart. Beyond that, things were in the grey; this teacher seemed certain about the beatitudes being a prerequisite for heaven, but I didn’t agree with her.
I raised my hand to double check: “Are you sure? We’re going to hell if we don’t do these things?” I recited the beatitudes out loud for the class because I, of course, had them memorized:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “If you don’t do these things, you will go to hell.”
A week later, I wrote the “right” answer on her Friday exam: “I will go to hell if I do not follow the beatitudes.” But I didn’t buy it. I liked myself. I was not interested in being persecuted. I also didn’t consider myself meek in any way. There was an unsettling amount of fear involved in the business of religion and whatever that woman was selling, I didn’t want it.When I mentioned this to my parents last month, they told me that they’d quietly gone to the principal all those years ago, hoping to get my bible teacher fired. Their efforts were rebuffed; 10 years later, she still teaches at my former high school.
After this incident, my journals become a melody of begging and pleading with god.
By the end of high school, I’d decided that I liked god but not religion. College was another story, though. With my doubts still barking at loud volume in my head, I headed far, far away for college. I hoped that by putting 12+ hours of travel between my childhood home and my new home, I’d be able to parse out what I thought for myself, by myself. What I did not expect was that I would feel deeply, painfully alone.
My religion fell to pieces at an exact moment and I remember it so clearly.
At college, I joined InterVarsity, a Christian group on campus, hoping to find a piece of something I recognized in this new and uncomfortable place. I attended a bible camp with InterVarsity during the summer of sophomore year and we spent the whole week discussing the book of Mark; on the third day of camp, we read a passage about a miracle. As we dissected the passage sentence by sentence, I stared up at the vaulted ceilings in the cabin, tracing the beams with my gaze, repeating to myself silently: “This isn’t real.” I realized that I didn’t believe the things that were being discussed. I didn’t think the Bible was based on fact. I didn’t believe that this miracle had actually happened.
When we broke for lunch, I begged out of the coursework for the rest of the day, claiming I needed to go on a prayer walk by myself. I sat on a rock by the lake and wrote in my journal, over and over: “I’m done.” I wrote 15 pages, sobbing, screaming, scribbling curse words into the pages so hard that the pages ripped through. My life, as I knew it, felt like it was over. I closed the journal, walked back to camp, and refused to attend the rest of the sessions that week, claiming I needed independent spiritual study time. I never read the bible again. From then on, I was an atheist.
I cried this month as I re-read those pages in my journal.
Watching myself leave evangelical Christianity, the only rulebook for life that I’d ever known, is heartbreaking, gutting, shattering. Imagine believing, for your whole life, that the entire world is built one way – and then one day, you wake up and discover that this way of life no longer works for you. What would you do? After I crushed my own worldview to smithereens, I spent months grappling with what would fill that void for me– what would bring purpose and value to my life. I felt deeply lonely: in abandoning my religion, I’d also abandoned the idea that someone was watching out for me.
I left for Italy soon after this great life combustion.
And in Italy, the discovery of self reliance turned out to be the greatest discovery of my life. I didn’t need to be redeemed or called someone’s poopie diaper. I didn’t need to be perfect at following rules that went against every fiber of my being. Instead, I was enough because I was enough for me. I saved myself daily in that foreign country where no one visited me, where I learned to take charge of what I needed, where I learned to take ownership over my problems instead of praying them away.
In 2014, once I’d graduated from college and moved to Boston, I wrote this: “My hope in god, when it failed, became an understanding of myself, a deep digging, clinging to the only things I could know fully: my own head, my own mind, my own power. Because damn do I and did I have power.”
Would I take back my religious upbringing? No.
Sometimes I wonder who I would have been if there had only been a blank slate to start, if I hadn’t been filled from toes to nose with religion, like water, at such a young age. Sometimes I wonder what I would think of the world without all those rules in the back of my mind. I wonder if I would have found my own power earlier. But then again, this journey has carved me into a person whom I like very much; I would never take that back. I trust myself completely, without bounds, because I had to trust myself when everything else fell through the cracks. I grew up with solid values, with a focus on community service and loving other people; I would never take that back, either. In the end, I’d like to believe that both roads would have led me to this same place regardless, simply winding in different ways.
Slow Roasted Cod with Melty Bell Peppers
Or “A light dinner after some heavy digging into one’s past.” Serves 4. Recipe directly from Bon Appetit.
6 medium red, orange, and/or yellow bell peppers
6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, smashed
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1½-lb. skinless cod, halibut, or striped bass fillet
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup coarsely chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. drained capers
Country-style bread (for serving)
Place racks in center and top-most positions of oven; heat broiler. Cut bell peppers in half lengthwise and remove stems, ribs, and seeds; discard. Place bell peppers on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 3 Tbsp. oil; season with salt and black pepper. Toss to coat, then turn cut side down and broil bell peppers on top rack, turning baking sheet front to back halfway through, until skins are blackened all over, 15–20 minutes.
Transfer bell peppers along with oil and juices on baking sheet to a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let bell peppers sit 10 minutes to steam, which will loosen their skins. Reduce oven temperature to 300°.
Uncover bell peppers and peel away charred skin from flesh (don’t worry about getting every last bit); discard. Tear flesh into ½” strips and place in a shallow 3-qt. baking dish along with all the accumulated juices in the bowl. Add garlic, vinegar, and red pepper flakes and toss well to combine. Taste and season with more salt.
Nestle cod into bell pepper mixture, drizzle with 2 Tbsp. oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Roast on center rack until flesh is opaque throughout and flakes easily when pressed, 25–30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes. Meanwhile, toss onion, parsley, capers, and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in a small bowl; season with salt. Top fish with onion mixture and serve with bread. Enjoy!