On a pivotal day in June 2011, I lost over 10,000 of my Christian family, friends, and peers. In one day. My social networks and the Arts conference which provided my income became a barren wasteland. What had once felt like a stalwart tribe of people — left me in less than 24 hours with almost no friends or natural support system.
Most of them say I abandoned them, and perhaps they are right. After all, I had sinned. I left my thirty-year career in the music ministry as I wrestled with an existential crisis. Most of my life had been geared toward achieving material success, but only after I attained it was its hollowness painfully apparent. I was empty.
I did not go back to church. A few months later I had an affair which left my marriage of twenty-seven years in confusion. Tormented by guilt, I confessed and asked forgiveness, but my wife was gravely wounded and could not reconcile my transgression. After five more years of turmoil and conflict in a relationship that no longer worked for either party, I fell in love with a long-time friend and fled my small town in shame to a big city far away.
And paradoxically, as time passed my former tribe began to realize much to their dismay, that I had run away to what turned out to be a much happier and prosperous life. A past due divorce gave me the freedom to date and eventually marry a new and better companion. I found someone who accepts me for the person I am becoming and who celebrates my questions and uncertainty about the mystery of existence.
Of all the parables in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most beloved by Christians — and the most ignored. The parable does not explain precisely why the prodigal son left home, but we do know this: he no longer wanted to live (or was no longer welcome) in his community. The son was sick and tired of living in the old ways, and he wished to try a new way of life.
The son eventually came to realize his loss of belonging and though his return was imperfect — being motivated by fear of continued misery rather than being driven by love for his former way of life — he came back home. The father sees his son coming from far away and runs out to greet him. He kisses him and tells his servants to prepare a welcome feast.
Though his son left home, the father never stopped loving him. The son’s request for his inheritance implies he did not wish to return home, yet the father yearned for the return of his son. And though the son expressed imperfect remorse, it was met with perfect forgiveness from the father.
It’s easy to focus on what the prodigal son’s father does; less obvious is what he does not do. The prodigal son’s father does not say: “You know, you left us; and unless you come back in sincere shame and repentance and beg forgiveness from all you have sinned against and mend your ways, you are not welcome back!”
The father granted unrequested and unconditional forgiveness. I’m happy for the prodigal son — but unfortunately, that is not what happens to many who are modern-day prodigals.
Thankfully, my parents and siblings loved me unconditionally, forgave me, and welcomed me back to their home. But to this day, over eight years later, I have been abandoned by my nuclear family, by my former pastors, by all but a handful of my closest friends, by thousands of members of the churches I had served faithfully, and by tens of thousands in my social networks.
The psychosis of religion had turned their adoration and admiration into hatred and loathing. I had lost my tribe—my sense of belonging.
I would walk down the streets of our little utopian right-wing evangelical town, and those “Christian” people would coldly turn their heads, go to the other side of the road and act as if I did not exist. I was invisible. I no longer belonged to their kind. I had been caught in adultery, and far too proper to cast stones, they piously declared me unfit and dead to their world. For a human being to be rendered invisible is worse than being condemned.
Benjamin Corey calls it ghosting in this insightful blog post. He says ghosting “is when someone abruptly ends a friendship with limited or no explanation, and when they proceed to quickly disappear from your life. They ghost people. They disappear from our lives. They abandon us. They sever ties. And they do it in the cruelest way possible: with silence.”
He goes on to say, “I don’t think they realize that on the day they ghosted me, it was the day that my life started to seriously unravel. No one cared if I survived as a person. Every waking morning was a reminder that none of them actually gave a shit about me. I don’t think they realize that years later, the idea of going to church again or having Christian friends I can trust, is outside of what would be healthy or plausible for me.”
“I don’t think they realize that when they see us at the department store and turn to walk away before we see them, they’re not quick enough. I don’t think they realize that I never fully recovered from that life event and that it still impacts me on a daily basis. I felt it yesterday, I feel it today, and I fear I’ll feel it tomorrow, too. I don’t think they realize any of those things. Sadly I don’t think they care, either– because if they did, they would have attempted to bind up the wounds they inflicted without letting so many years go by.”
These are heart-rending words that sound eerily familiar uttered by someone who has experienced a destructive loss of belonging. And it’s not just Benjamin Corey and myself; unfortunately, the ranks of the “ghosted” are growing at an alarming rate.
So, how does one survive the loss of their tribe? After all, a sense of belonging is a basic human need, just like the need for food and shelter. To belong means to be accepted as a member or part of something important.
Perhaps we can glean encouragement from Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Compensation when he promises that “every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.” He goes on, “What does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Eight difficult years after being ghosted by my tribe, the following chapters highlight ten steps that helped me survive, and to employ an overused cliché, to thrive. Several chapters conclude with vital questions to ask yourself. They are not exhaustive, but I hope these ten steps will serve as the beginning of your journey. It has not been an easy road, but the adventure has been life-transforming.
Loss can ultimately be a positive thing. The displacement of the noise of my tribe has led to solitude, healing, self-acceptance, and wholeness. The refutation of control wielded by the institutions of life (especially by religion) has provided spiritual freedom. The dearth of mindless teaching has encouraged an insatiable curiosity. The liberation of sexual repression has blossomed to a sensual awakening. And the renunciation of self-denial and shame has promoted intimacy and communion.
Has it been easy? No. Has it been worth it? Yes. A resounding yes!
Why this book?
Psychologist James Hollis, sociologist Joseph Campbell, philosophers Jean-Claude Sartre and Frederich Nietzsche (to name only a few) have emboldened me to write (to bleed) these words. Joseph Campbell once said; “Follow your bliss.” These men teach that we must free ourselves from the dictates of the institutions of life (family, religion, education, and society) to connect with our passion, or in the words of Campbell, our bliss.
Hollis, Campbell, Sartre, and Nietzsche, and my therapist, Dr. Steve have encouraged this writer to detail my quest. They have shown me that people like myself have a unique way of communicating about hope because we tend to live ‘near the heat’ of creativity’s fire. They have taught me that that which pulls us into the crucible, is the thing that can transform us, and lead us into our true being. Unfortunately, that often means ghosting, suffering, and loss. But their words and my experience teach we do not have to fear loss.
They have shown me the only true fear of life is that of dying having never really lived. Few people know their destiny. Few people live their lives. We must learn to live our lives.
I invite you to join me on this hope-filled quest. Of course, there are more than ten steps to anything in this messy reality called life. But my objective is that the following pages provide a starting point — a rudimentary map to finding healing, finding you, and then finding others — a new (and better) tribe.