My friends still joke about the time I dated a Jehovah’s Witness. They kid that he was crazy, misguided, brainwashed and ask how I dealt with constantly being made to feel inadequate as long as I did. I bop along and agree outwardly, but inside I still hurt. It has been two years since I’ve even seen him in person, yet I still long for the connection we had. He had many negative qualities; I won’t disagree with that. Our relationship was flawed in many ways—otherwise we would still be together. But as with any relationship, there was a beautiful, magically reactive chemistry between us that others have not and will not ever truly understand. And as with any failed relationship, there remain stains of sadness marbled with moments of joy and reassurance that, ultimately, I made the right decision. That said, for me, the holidays are now and likely will always be a little bittersweet.
You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate holidays. I won’t begin to explain why, as delving into the meaning behind Jehovah’s Witness views, I’ve learned these last few years, is hit or miss: You either buy into it or you don’t, and discussing religion at all often causes conflict. The point is, the holiday season was always a glaring spotlight on the cracks in our relationship’s foundation. The holidays, which brought warmth, joy and lovely memories to me did nothing but remind him that I did not have the same values he did. He saw them as symbols of all the differences between us. Going anywhere with him during Christmastime was impossible. Lights, trees, decorations everywhere. He’d make somewhat bitter remarks, reiterating all the reasons people in his faith don’t celebrate Christmas. I don’t think he truly held animosity toward the season or those who celebrate it; I think he just didn’t like being reminded that in our invisible future, I pictured a Christmas tree surrounded by our beautiful children, while he pictured a family Bible study at the Kingdom Hall. We ignored, for the full duration of being together, the huge insufferable differences between us, but during the holidays we simply could not.
When I moved to Austin in September 2011, things officially began to come to a close between us. That holiday season, for me was especially rife with heartache, depression, questioning my own religious views, and if I’m being honest, the worst loneliness I’ve ever felt in my life. I knew why we couldn’t be together. It would never work. I tried to focus on the things that mattered to me most in my life: traditions, equality, open-mindedness, and acceptance and remember that in those very basic qualities we differed. I knew that I would embrace our children if they were gay, and he would want to change them. I knew that if he were in a car crash and required a blood transfusion to save his life, I would, of course, want that for him, but he would not do the same for me. And I knew that if my children were to ask about God, I would let them decide for themselves, whereas he would raise them from the start with a set belief system. Aside from being so assured in my heart that things would never work out for these reasons, I could not help but feel insecure in my own religion, or lack thereof, and wonder, “What if he’s right?”
I was not raised with a religious background. I was not forced or even slightly influenced one way or the other to believe in God or the Bible. Up until meeting my ex, I was fine with that. I knew what I felt was right based off my conscience and feelings and frankly, that had always been alright by me. But he would question me, constantly, about how I could base my beliefs “off of nothing.” He would not even call my values “beliefs,” rather he’d refer to it as “the way you live your life” or “the way you think.” He would berate me, saying things like, “Oh, you just do whatever you want because it feels right to you,” as if feeling something to be right or wrong was not reason enough to believe. He said that my “worldly views” confused him and that he couldn’t comprehend how people could live without knowing what he called “the Truth.” Admittedly there was a part of me that wanted a solid, foolproof guidebook on how to live life. I always envied the religious because it seemed things were so simply laid out. I thought life, for the hardcore believers, was simpler in some ways. That and if he was right… if I really did believe in nothing, maybe I could simply shift my views to match his, if anything just so I could have him again.
In addition, I wanted to prove my love by giving his beliefs a chance. I didn’t want to immediately succumb to the “Jehovah’s Witnesses are insane” mentality that so many Americans have today. He mattered to me, so of course his faith mattered to me too. I really tried to understand it. So I read things from all perspectives on being a JW. I pulled information from the Watchtower’s own website, as well as that of organizations that claim JW’s are simply members of a cult. I left no article unturned, whether it be for or against the Jehovah’s Witness religion. I kept myself unbiased and simply gathered as much information as I could. I went to my local Kingdom Hall, the JW equivalent of a church, and spoke for hours with two extremely sweet ladies. I heard them out and I attended a couple of Bible studies. I read, I asked questions, I gave it a real chance—something my friends and family thought I never should have done. They warned me not to, saying it would shake my faith too much and make me lose who I was, but I really wanted to try. For love, for him, for myself in a lot of ways—I wanted to be able to say I gave it an honest shot. I never wanted to look back, twenty years later, and wonder, “What if I could have been happy with him?”
The problem is I was asking myself the wrong question. It was not whether or not I could be happy with him, but rather could I be happy with myself by living life on his terms. The result of my exploration was the most confused and conflicted version of myself I’ve ever experienced. I felt like, in terms of being good for him, I was doing everything right. But in terms of being good for myself, I was being destructive. I was caught in a mental tug of war, between what my heart wanted and what my head wanted. A life with him sounded blissful until I truly realized what I would be giving up.
I distinctly remember that Christmas, walking through the mall, trying to force myself to enjoy the lights and the shopping in the same way I always have. I remember watching movies with my family and playing poker in the kitchen like we do every Christmas Eve but through it all feeling so unbelievably disconnected. Not from Christmas necessarily, but truly distanced from everything I knew and loved. In fact, throughout those months I had never felt so far from my family or from myself. Somewhere between Christmas cookies and fireworks on New Year’s Eve, I started to realize that my family and friends were right—I was giving up too much for the sake of something I didn’t believe in. Regardless of studying his religion and learning why he felt the way he did, I just didn’t agree with him. I tried hard to believe it… I had the ultimate reward—a life with the man I loved—if I believed it, but my resolve finally gave out. I was hurting myself, chastising myself, and judging myself day in and day out. It wasn’t until I honored my identity and the uniquely “me” components of my principles that I started to feel better.
That Christmas season served as a representation to me of all the things in life I’d lose to him. Despite wanting to be with him, I could not imagine life without the deep, loving connection I have with my family and friends that transcends gifts, cookies or decorations. It was in realizing how I could lose Christmas that I realized I was losing myself. I decided to switch gears and began to cherish and value more the things I did believe in, even if they weren’t penned in a scripture. Sure, Christmas in my family had never meant a celebration of Jesus’ birth, but for me it absolutely meant something. Acknowledging the significance of my own beliefs, and more importantly, making them a priority over a relationship with someone who didn’t value me in a spiritual way, was key. Every calendar year that passes from now on will continue to serve as a symbol that for the first time in life and love, I chose me; that I valued myself enough to trust my instincts, beliefs and opinions more than the love of a man who never quite even loved me back. Reminding myself of that and my worth will surely be the best gift I get every year.