There seem to be layers to my problem.
They are all about culture. They are all about who I am and how I perform the fact of my “I-am-ness” in a social context. Peter Berger writes, “Identities are socially bestowed. They must also be socially sustained and fairly steadily so. One cannot be human all by oneself and, apparently, one cannot hold on to any particular identity all by oneself.” I think he’s right. He’s also pointing to what all the layers of my problem have in common. I cannot maintain a consistent identity here and it’s painful.
At assembly one morning last week, the Staff-on-Duty reminds the students not to lose their identities. I think this was probably said in the context of boys keeping their hair short or girls not wearing fancy clips. I can’t claim I was paying terribly close attention. But it struck me very deeply.
Most of the time, I feel like I am losing my soul here. I am losing my identity.
I try to think what that identity is or what it was. What am I so afraid of losing? I peel away the layer of having grown up in a very specific border culture. I peel away the layer of having grown up in close contact with the border’s criminal culture and my father’s psychopathy. (Why is it a student once asked, in all seriousness, if I was in White Fence, a gang in South Central Los Angeles? Oh, that’s why….) I peel away the layer of having acculturated to India.
There’s one more layer maybe I forgot about. I grew up in a cult.
Country-Xers are loud. Not all the time or in all contexts, and there are quiet Country X-ers, just as there are quite Americans—although Americans are also very loud. But I find myself in situations where someone shouts a question at me from some distance away—across the room or from down the street—and it feels so emotionally painful for me to be loud that it feels like something terrible is happening to my insides. I cannot shout. I have done it twice and lived to tell about it, but the way I felt afterwards was simply awful.
They are blunt. I think actually they are blunt about some things and not others, but I haven’t sorted this out yet. However, for the most part, they are fairly direct. There isn’t a heavy layer of subtext to decipher. And I am not used to that either. Mostly, this is a bad thing. I am very often terribly confused, finding myself responding to an unspoken message that was never intended—and doing that in an indirect way that is either missed entirely or is puzzling to others. Yesterday, it was a good thing. I lost patience with a teacher—he’s always trying to prove his intelligence, so let’s call him Smart Sir—who asked me a question in Hindi in a lousy accent that didn’t make any sense. He does this just to see if I really know Hindi. I am not fluent, in fact, so the point of this remains a mystery to me. I said, “I understand you are trying to speak Hindi.” If he’d been in the habit of looking for subtext, he would have realized I had insulted him. He continued unruffled.
There are other things, but maybe you get the idea. I need to change some things to function here. I need to be loud. I need to be direct. (I can, actually, be direct about work matters. It is the personal end of things that gives me trouble.) I probably need to be more interested in clothes.
And then there is this matter of coming to terms with being different and being an outsider. And I need to accept my limitations. That I cannot really be considerate of others or anticipate their needs because I don’t know enough about them. I can’t be perfect.
I wonder why these things give me so much trouble and why I wake in the night feeling so much pressure inside I want to cry. Then I remember. I was raised in a cult.
Growing up in a cult is like growing up in another country. There are differences in values, communication strategies, language idioms, metaphors, and social practices. They may not be the same across different groups of the same cult, but they are distinctly different from the mainstream culture. This happens because of the intense isolation. Even if you don’t grow up on a commune, in contact with only other members of the cult, a distrust of outsiders prevents the kinds of connections from developing that would allow a cultural exchange. As a 2×2, you meet outsiders, you talk to them, you might even be friends with them, but you assume they will not understand you and you will not understand them. Not unless they convert. So you don’t take on any of their values or practices. You learn only those of the cult.
For me, growing up in the 2x2s was like growing up in a village. Although large by 2×2 standards, our church was small. We were very, very close. Everyone knew everything about each other. We saw each other often. And we helped each other. At times, I thought the help wasn’t real help. It was only skin-deep. But it doesn’t matter. Helping was a general practice for us. So there was a strong element of interdependence that is unlike the general WEIRD-culture bias towards independence.
It was also strongly hierarchical. “Friends” or “saints” (laymembers) deferred to the “workers” (ministers). Women deferred to men. Younger people deferred to older people. New members deferred to long-standing members and to those “born-into” the 2x2s. Ordinary “friends” deferred to “elders” (those appointed to host church services in their homes and do many other things, not all of them publically known.) Without any discussion, I think we all knew exactly where we stood and who had more or less status than we did.
More status meant you had the privilege of being right. You could criticize others’ lack of religiosity, their manner of dressing, or their hairstyle. Within a group, you might also be allowed to have the final word on interpretations of Bible passages or questions of doctrine. What I remember is that a person with less status did not ever directly disagree with someone of higher status. I could say, “I have been having doubts about this….” There were other stock phrases, but I don’t remember them just now. But you did not criticize or contradict. Then you were reminded, “Judge not that ye be not judge.” Judging was the province of higher-ups.
I also remember that part of the role of those in the higher echelons was to keep those of lower status in line through criticism—either overt or implied. So an older woman might give a younger’s short hemline a long, disapproving look. Or she could directly make a comment. I think we all remember those disapproving looks. When you have such a small world to live in, the disapproval of even one person—especially a person respected in your community—is very powerful.
And I remember some of the values we shared: serving others and preserving the unity.
Together, they meant you needed to watch and listen to see what the group seemed to want to do. You needed to see what you could do to help move the group move in that direction. You had to be good at anticipating the needs and preferences of other people. Otherwise, you were selfish. I don’t think we said selfish. I think we said, “Not mindful.” Or maybe we had some other stock phrase—”the wrong spirit.” It’s been a long time. But you certainly didn’t look after yourself first. You always thought about others before you thought about yourself. It wasn’t at all in line with the general WEIRD-culture emphasis on individuality and achievement.
Some would call that not interdependent, but co-dependent. However, I’m not convinced that there is anything inherently harmful in prioritizing the needs of others. I am not even convinced there is anything wrong with having a very hierarchical culture. Many cultures are also very hierarchical. They also place a high value on thinking about other first. They aren’t all disproportionately affected by abuse, child-maltreatment, or substance abuse. But families with various kinds of untreated mental illness become highly interdependent in order to cope with the stress of the mental illness in the family.
“Modesty” was big too. Outward, “being modest” for females meant wearing a lot of ugly clothes and styling our hair the way ladies did a hundred years ago. More importantly, it meant being quiet and unassertive. Unless you had more status. Then you could be a jackass. It all depended. But if you are a child in the cult, you have no status. You must be quiet, you must not speak up or speak your mind, you must take the criticism of your elders quietly. You cannot argue or defend yourself or become upset. You must be gentle. You must be soft-spoken. You must not complain. You must learn to exercise self-control.
The main value was this: We needed to try to become perfect. So, “Jesus was our perfect pattern.” We needed to become “more perfect in the sight of God.” There were other phrases. Perfect was definitely a big deal.
Given all this–interdependence, hierarchy, anticipating the needs of others, and being perfect—many of us kids growing up in the “way” became highly anxious. I pick at the skin around my nails. It isn’t “perfect.” My niece pulls her hair out. It isn’t “perfect.” A childhood playmate compulsively washed her hands. They weren’t perfectly clean. One boy was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer at 17. There were so many things we needed to be perfect at, and so many of them were so difficult. It was easier to wash your hands.
If we weren’t “perfect enough”—something we could never know—we couldn’t be “saved” from hell. We would burn forever. And even if it didn’t come to that, the workers might give you one of their looks. And that was bad enough.
When I broke away from the 2x2s, I thought I was breaking away from all of this. But it is still agonizing to be loud or direct about personal matters with anyone I don’t know very, very, very well. I have to change.
What’s interesting about this is that I don’t feel guilty when I break these old rules. I feel ashamed. Being loud is more like having a bowel movement in public than having an affair with my best friend’s spouse. Aggressiveness is like leaving the house dirty and unwashed and with my clothes on inside out. It feels more like a lack of self-respect than anything else.
But it’s nice at least to get a handle on this. Maybe I can change. Or at least sleep at night again.