Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (9): Fantasy and Denial

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by Neil Godfrey

updated 10.20 am

Continuing notes from one Marlene Winell‘s Leaving the Fold. Previous posts are archived here.

This is a tough one to write about because I’m not sure I’ve really come to terms with the extent of my own past denials.

Winell does quote a lengthy letter from an MK (missionary kid) and I’ll repeat a small section that does remind me of one of my past parenting moments:

As I got older, true to the family pattern, I was hard on my little brother. He went to Mom and said that I hated him. Mom said, “No, he doesn’t hate you,” and dismissed it, even though that is what I had said. (p.125)

The above letter goes on to describe the son’s attempts to discuss family issues with a mother who finds it too difficult or painful to admit reality — who avoids it and only speaks of things getting better all the time.

I recall thinking something similar. I also recall speaking to one of my children who had expressed “hate” and teaching him that was a “wrong emotion”. A sin. What a useless Homer I was for a father when that was the best I could do. I probably prayed about it, asking God to make me a better parent with more wisdom. Only in hindsight do I see how prayer was in fact an act of denial and escapism. And when I saw little moments when my children were playing together without fighting I’d convince myself that all was good after all. There was no hate. It was just a childish outburst that could be forgotten.

Since the entire fundamentalist system of thinking is absolutist in character, it is very threatening, and often impossible, for fundamentalist Christians to admit and examine areas of unhappiness in themselves. Problems or doubts are simply considered sin, and the Christian strives to be “victorious.” (p.124)

Winell writes that “no value [is] placed on reflection or awareness of areas for personal growth” and my first reaction is to deny that. As a fundamentalist I was always reflecting and examining areas in need of personal growth. But Winell is right. What I understood by that sort of reflection was really nothing more than checking to see how well I was measuring up to what I believed were godly standards of character or my relationship with God. My idea of “reflection and awareness of areas for personal growth” was fantasy and denial and playing mind-games to “put on” another persona.

Thus important emotional and behavioral issues are not examined and a pattern of denial develops. Troubling philosophical questions, feelings of unfulfillment, and “un-Christian” experiences such as anger or greed have to be denied. (p.124)

I remember it well. At the first sinful thought or feeling and on one of my good days I would rush off to God in prayer to cast down the evil thought or feeling. Life was a spiritual warfare. I was overcoming! Winning! . . . Not realizing I was really losing big time. I was really dismissing the problems, denying the thoughts and feelings. What was winning was my fantasy. No wonder I now look back on all I believed and that sustained me then as like living a life of believing I was a character in a fairy tale.

All this becomes a fantasy that grows and must be protected — a fantasy that all is well. To fail to support this fantasy would be to question one’s core reality. And this can be overwhelming. (p.124)

To question the core reality is to question one’s faith. That is impossible, or it is not faith.

My marriage came to an end for many reasons, and one of them was this very thing. I recall some mornings going to work knowing there were tensions between me and my wife, yet praying in my mind prayers of thanks for my wife. By that time things were bad enough that I was acting like a pigeon bobbing its head in the direction I thought would surely bring the reward of food. Married to someone who was being a real pain in more than one of my sphincters, I recall on one occasion deciding that an appropriate and saintly response would be to fill my thoughts with prayers of thanks for having such a darling wife. At least it was less painful than attempting to wade through the quicksand of reality.

I lived the the rules. Stay close to God. Love my wife. Seek counsel. Pray. Do the right things the church sermons and literature taught were requisite for happy family and marital relations. And when it all collapsed I knew others were judging me by the same standard I had judged others: such a terrible shame they could not overcome sin in their lives and live by the rules that would have guaranteed a happy marriage.

The problem was not failure to live by the rules. The problem was believing marriage could be sustained on biblical rules and faith alone.

The same applies between parents and children.

The problem is not so much a willingness to neglect or abuse children, but an outright blindness to problems. (p.124)

Parents in their fantasy must believe all is well. Where an outside observer would see the most obvious problems the fundamentalist parent can remain blind to any fault at all.

Winell then rightly observes in fundamentalist religious families this kind of denial can be even more intense than that found in nonreligious families. Simply because the religious denial is rooted in one’s deepest faith and view of the world and one’s place in it. To examine this would be to risk losing one’s foundations. One’s whole world could come to an end. It would risk real trauma.

I recall having that very feeling when I did leave the faith. I felt as if I was suddenly walking through the Book of Revelation, with the ground having fallen out from beneath me, the sky having fallen in, not knowing what awaited me when I came through to some new stability as I knew I surely must eventually.

Meanwhile, people who go to church and bible studies every week, who are busy with church activities, being lights to the world, model citizens, helping one another as brethren, who dress respectably and listen to respectable music, — is it really possible that for the most conscientious of them it’s all a life in a fantasy world of denial?

The world of Islam is currently being forced to face uncomfortable truths about itself. But that’s easiest among those who have moved to live in or at least regularly experience a different culture. It usually takes a tragedy to begin to open eyes to face reality. But some people will go to their graves living in denial of the personal tragedies that have dogged them all their bleeding believing lives.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (9): Fantasy and Denial”

  1. Man, heavy personal stuff being written here, good for you.

    Recently, an old family friend of ours died. He was a friend from the church where my Father is pastor. When my father was divorced, when I was a toddler, he had done “everything right”. They were both serving in a Christian school, and he was definitely on fire for God. But that didn’t make their marriage bullet proof. After this marriage ended, it was one of the darkest times in his life. But this old family friend had taken my father in, loved him like a son.

    Yesterday I was at the Memorial. My Dad preached the message. And not only was it the most unique memorial I had ever been to, I was inspired when I left. The amount of love shown to others, by this person, was a great testament to who his God was. This family is unique and different. Sure there were tears, but there was also joy knowing that they were going to see their friend, family member and father again.

    That old family friend, on his hospice bed, in his home, he had been under the heaviest amount of morphine that someone could be on. He was being ravaged my lymphoma. The nurse said that she had never seen this type of incident happen before. During a deep sleep, with the family around, he woke up and praised God. He then looked around and thanked the people in the room, some of whom he had not seen for years, and then fell back asleep. He died a few days later.

    I say that to say this: God is real. With every fiber of my being I believe it. I am sorry that these Christians treated you this way through your divorce. I wish that there was a person like this in your life when it happened, just to ease the pain–if even a little.

  2. Fantasy and denial is at its most potent in the face of death no doubt. I recall several such emotional moments as you describe, including very close family with similar moving displays of what was believed to be God’s “very real presence”.

    But I may have overstated or given a wrong impression about negative reactions from others to my divorce — there’s a difference between the thoughts that go through one’s mind and how one treats another. Sermons and conversation makes it very clear that there are “laws” that are supposed to guarantee “success” and the implication is that failure results from breaking them. That’s not to say that people are not still kind and merciful. But really, that sort of mercy is tainted with condescension, however well-meaning at the conscious level.

    My point is that the fantasy is always there as part of the belief system, of one’s frame of reference and relationships. In hindsight it really is as if one’s life was “full” only by virtue of living a role in a novel or movie adventure. The reality we come to after walking through our “end of our world” experiences is great. Death, finality, adds an edge to appreciation for life — and love for humanity — that was inevitably dulled by the dreaming in the old world.

    But hey! I do recall the separation/divorce was not nearly as hard as the marriage. It was a relief, a return to being “me”, reality, nature. No more effort to fight and kid myself over the impossible. The hard part came with all the associated extras (like kids).

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