On growing up JW
JW children are not allowed to: participate in school holiday events; salute the flag; sing patriotic or holiday songs; participate in patriotic or holiday events; maintain friendships with classmates outside of school (except for the purpose of conversion). Blushing near purple with embarrassment, I regularly brought notes to my teachers from my mother, which read: “Please excuse my daughter from [fill in the event] because it’s against our religion.” (Forget after school activities for the same reason: My mother would not let me join the swim team because “bad associations spoil useful habits” and “good Christians aren’t competitive.”)
JW children view their classmates as part of the “World” and thus facing death at Armageddon. That gives JW children a sort of self-righteousness (I can’t fault that – they need SOMETHING to help them feel good, outcasts that they are), because, unlike their classmates, JW children are secure in the knowledge that they both know and are part of the Truth. There was no other JW child in my elementary school, one other in middle school and but a handful in high school. It was an alienating existence.
Not surprisingly, going to college is heavily and actively discouraged. Again, “bad associations spoil useful habits” was frequently quoted as a warning. Also, JWs preach (and have been preaching for over 100 years now) that “this system of things” will soon be gone so why would you want to waste time in college? Besides, you’d learn “bad things” that could put you in the position of questioning the Truth (apostasy and an automatic disfellowshipping offense!).
Having spent many years in the ivory tower – both as a student and a professor – I recognize that those “bad things” were critical thinking and reasoning skills, empirical research, history, ancient languages, philosophy and science. (Oh, and maybe temptation with the Worldly opposite sex.)
The literacy rate required to read and comprehend JW literature reflects not just the lack of education of JWs from an institutional standpoint but, I suggest, also reflects the lack of education of those they most successfully convert. I once read JW literature described as “Where’s Waldo” but with words. That descriptive sentence was beautiful in its simplicity and accuracy.
If a JW child likes education in general and natural science in particular, s/he is in for a world of hurt. Science is a difficult concept for JWs. Scientific discoveries, facts or theories that go against JW doctrine are, simply, WRONG. This makes formal education very problematic. For example:
- JWs believe that god created the heavens and earth in 7 days but that each of those days was 1,000 years. Thus, per JW doctrine, no human (including early humans), can be older than 7,000 years. Any scientific evidence to the contrary is wrong. (Now try getting through school defending that belief!)
- JWs don’t believe in the Ice Age. They believe it was the flood of Noah’s day that made all sorts of geographic changes.
- Ahh, you may ask, what was the origin of all that water that caused a world-wide flood? JWs believe that after creation, leftover water remained surrounding the earth (somewhere up in space), sort of like a water-filled tubular balloon encircling the earth. According to JWs, before the flood of Noah’s day, people could only dimly make out the stars. JWs believe that god punctured that water balloon to release the water that caused the flood.
No surprise to any of us former JWs (or, for that matter, any person who ever tried to engage a JW in a rational, logical, empirically or philosophically sound discussion), that the Pew Research Center’s sociological comparative analysis of religions in the US found that JWs ranked highest in statistics for getting no farther than high school graduation and the lowest for having earned a graduate degree.
It is a lonely life for a child, especially one like me who defied her mother and secretly read non-JW literature voraciously, JW literature reluctantly and asked lots of questions. If a JW doctrine made no sense, I would push for more clarity. Then I would be warned that to question the Society was to “question God’s Holy Spirit” which was apostasy and I could be disfellowshipped. (As you can see, intellectual inquiry is highly discouraged.)
But my questions at school were not just welcomed but encouraged! I was one of those students teachers love to have in class. When my high school advisor and teachers learned I was not taking the classes in the college track, they were stunned. When they asked me about my college plans, I gave (eyes downcast, face flushed) my prepared answer: “I’m going to be a missionary.” One determined (and wonderful!) English teacher gently replied that missionaries would benefit by a college education. Focused on the ground beneath my feet, my eyes filled with tears and she surely saw a tear splat onto the toe of my shoe as she changed the topic of conversation. But, concerned educator that she was, she telephoned my mother to talk about my education. (That did not work out well.)
Did you ever see Brian DiPalma’s Carrie or read the book of the same name by Stephen King? I was Carrie (though without the ability to move things with my mind). By high school I floated through the halls like a wraith, hoping not to get anyone’s attention; I tried not to ask too many questions in class as I didn’t want anyone noticing me. As soon as I turned 16, my mother made me take an “intense” class schedule allowing me to finish high school a semester early and so I could start pioneering (see previous post) by hitting the pavement with the Watchtower and Awake as soon as my last class ended (around noon). My mother woke me at 4 a.m. or so to do my homework, my first class started at 7, my class ended by 1 p.m. – a hellish schedule that allowed me several hours of door-to-door time before I had to dash home and bolt down dinner before running to that evening’s meeting at the Kingdom Hall.
Leaving JWs Behind
While adults can geographically remove themselves from their JW upbringing, the scars and effects linger. Some ex-JWs cannot bear the shunning they experience from their friends and families so return to being a JW. Some ex-JWs find peace through other religions or spiritual paths. (The closest I am to a spiritual path is yoga practice.) To emotionally heal, most ex-JWs find the help and guidance of a professional therapist of critical importance. (I was one of those.) I started to find my peace when I went back to school. I couldn’t do that until my daughter was older, so I was 30 when I finally started college. I ultimately earned a PhD and became a professor.
Discussions in English on anything remotely religious discomfit me; in Norwegian I am fine. (My mother pounded us with JW doctrine in English; in Norway my grandmother’s presence always weakened my mother’s ability to force JW doctrine on us.) I can sit through a religious event only if the services are in Norwegian (or any other language). I don’t celebrate Christmas; it has no meaning for me, both as an ex-JW and because I’m not Christian. While I have never uttered (or written, for that matter), the words “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter,” I will say that in Norwegian.
But because the formative years of my life were spent in a weird and strictly dichotomized existence - the World vs. the Truth – I have never felt part of anything larger than my being part of my family and loved ones. The one exception: The world of fiber art!