The Vine: November 21, 2012
Happy American Thanksgiving, Nation. I'm thankful for all of you, and your hilarity, generosity, and insight. The Vine is off on Friday as I recover from my annual date with poultry, but if you have gifts what want hunting down/tough-to-shop-for in-laws/etiquette questions about crappy toys your kid got, I'm here for you. Keep 'em coming.
I am in a weird situation and I need your wisdom. I grew up Christian and went to church every Sunday, it was very much just the standard way of life for our family and in later years, I went through what I believe a lot of people go through where they question religion and find that it is not for them. I am now atheist and happy with that decision even though it took a few years to get to that stage as the "fire and brimstone" fate of this way of life was very much ingrained in me from a very young age by the church.
My mom started attending a more progressive church community in my late teens and became very involved with them and immersed herself completely in religion. I have no problem with this, in fact I believe this helped her a lot in dealing with life and all the things she went through. I want to be clear that she is not some religious nut and even if she is, she is one of the good ones. She is honestly the sweetest, kindest most gentle person I have ever known. She is a teacher and apart from being a great one she is always involved in some sort of charity work, and I have seen what she has done for other people with the limited resources she has, from taking food to a very sick acquaintance every day for weeks at a time to volunteering to help out after hours/weekends with the disabled children at their school, etc. I know a lot of this comes from her faith as well as the fact that she is just an awesome person in general. In short, she was and is a fantastic mom and I would not change one thing about her.
So here is my dilemma, she is very concerned about the fact that I no longer have faith and not in the "I want you to attend church" way but like seriously concerned that I am heading to hell if I don't start believing and soon. This is so ridiculous to me that I don't know how to deal with it, and the only reason I am even asking for advice and not just ignoring the situation is that she is seriously worried about this and I can see it actually causes her a lot of grief which is the last thing I want for her. I can have a sane, rational discussion with my siblings about this (they are both Christian) and we agree to disagree and respect each other's beliefs and that is that, it does not affect our relationships in other ways. The same conversation with my mom is not possible, we have tried before but it normally ends in her being more upset than ever.
I get that this for her comes from a genuine place of love and concern, she sincerely believes this stuff but I just cannot even begin to understand how this is actual fact for her. Personally I think this is a stupid situation as I feel like my reality and her reality is obviously different and I do not say this to diminish her beliefs, I think it is all valid as long as you put some reason and logic behind it.
I just don't know how to get that across to her and I am hoping you have some magic answer that I can just print and give her to read (I know that is cheating but my fingers remain firmly crossed!).
Anyway, I know religion can be a difficult topic and this seems so trivial but it is actually a problem and I am hoping you and hopefully the rest of the readers can give me some advice.
Wow, I just drew a complete blank on how to end this…
What have you said to her on the topic so far? Like, what exact words did you use? Because if you said, in so many words, "I just cannot even begin to understand how this is actual fact for you," or asked her to "put some reason and logic behind" her arguments in favor of you resuming faith, I think we've identified your problem. I don't get the sense that you've taken that tack — and: don't; the implication that her spiritual life is a long con won't go over well — but just in case you have, now's the time to course-correct.
But it doesn't sound like this is about your handling of it, but rather that she's genuinely concerned for your spiritual safety, and she won't let it go. So, what to say that can change the subject without upsetting her? Well, the bad news is, I don't know that you can have both. The good news is, if she's choosing to continue getting upset instead of respecting your conclusions and trusting that she raised a level-headed child who can mind her own soul, that's…her choice, and while it's never a good time when a parent starts crying, she has all the information she needs to get okay with your atheism, and you can't beat yourself up too much if she's not using it.
So, here's one script. "Mom, I know this comes from a place of sincere love and concern, and thank you for caring, really — but nothing has changed since the last time we discussed this, and because it inevitably upsets you, I really don't think we should discuss it again." Big kiss, big hug, follow-up back-pat, change of topic or departure from room.
The trick here is twofold: 1) make your refusal to engage about her happiness, and 2) stick it. Do not engage. "Mom…[rueful chuckle]…I love you. Did you hear that that prat Mike Hunt married a 17-year-old?" "Thanks, Mom; I hear you. Now what's your secret with those peonies." Again, she has a problem with your atheism; you need, gently and with love, not to take it on for her.
You might also consider enlisting your siblings' help if the whole fam is spending time together. Ask them if they wouldn't mind wingmanning for you in conversations and help you head her off. But don't let yourself get frustrated or drawn in. It's hard at first and some people never do get the hint, but hang in there.
Tags: etiquette the fam