By Randall Ajimine
In my twenties, I attended some really conservative churches. I’ve thought a lot about how their teaching have been tremendously unhelpful in a number of different ways, and it seems like every time I identify a new kind of harm that was sown into my life and begin to work through it, I find another deeper layer of hurt.
A lot of this harm was based on what I’m going to call false church narratives.
The first narrative told me that if I saved myself for marriage (denied my sexual desires, and avoided dating) then God would miraculously bring the perfect woman into my life. Just like that.
The second narrative was based primarily on Luke 9:23-25, and this one taught me that the life of a good, faithful Christian is one where I deny not just my sexual desires but all my desires. In this narrative, the goal of the Christian life is to deny my wants and needs for the sake of saving non-Christians. Then (according to Luke 9:24), the more I denied myself, the more God would bless and fill me to make up for all that I had given up.
Now combine the first (sexuality denying) narrative with the second (wholly self-denying) one and you wind up with a narrative that says a romantic relationship is one where each person denies themselves for the sake of the other. This third narrative said that if I denied myself and gave 110% of my attention to the needs of the other person then that other person would deny themself and give me 110% of their attention... and then somehow that was supposed to make for a beautiful relationship.
I’ve actually known for a while now that narratives like these are crap. Unfortunately, it turns out that unlearning something false isn’t as simple as deciding that the old ideas are wrong. For me, even though I’ve been trying to do and think differently by taking my own needs/wants/desires into consideration, it turns out those old self-denial teachings go far deeper than I thought.
I’ve starting seeing someone recently. It’s been just over three months now and for the most part it’s been pretty freaking amazing. One of the really great things about our relationship is that we both check in with one another on a regular basis – we ask each other how they’re feeling about life in general and about the relationship. And we’re both brutally (yet kindly) honest with each other. And here’s where the toxic nature of those old narratives really comes into play.
Sometimes she asks me how I’m doing and if there’s anything she can do for me or if there’s anything I’m wanting/needing from her. And when she asks me this, sometimes (far too often) I don’t have an answer.
I pause for a moment, look inward, and try to identify an issue/need/desire/want and there’s nothing there.
Now let me be clear here. Sometimes I’m just content with life. Sometimes I’m just happy to be there with her and so I don’t have any needs to communicate. But sometimes… sometimes I’m unsettled because I can sense that there is some kind of vague concern that I have but just can’t connect with... but that’s not it either.
It’s hard to explain.
See, sometimes, she asks me what I want and when I stop to think about it, there’s just nothing there. It’s like I don’t know how to want, how to need, how to desire anything for myself and so I don’t know how to answer her.
Because there is no answer.
And so I say, “I don’t know.”
Now here’s how wonderful she is. Sometimes she’ll take “I don’t know” at face value but sometimes she pauses and insists on an answer because she knows how the church has damaged me and wants more for/from me. She cares and so she wants me to reconnect with myself and my desires. And when I can’t, it sucks for me and it sucks for her. And sometimes she gets frustrated or I get frustrated. Or sometimes we just end up sad because here she is wanting more from me – wanting me – and there’s nothing there.
And all this because all those years ago, I did such a good job of being a faithful, self-denying Christian.
I wish I could put a nice ending on this post, but the best i can say is that as hard as it’s been to unlearn these shitty old narratives, it is kind of cool (though not easy) to be able to write new ones. And I’ve got a sensational writing partner (re)writing with me.