Tree of Life

I just watched the Tree of Life with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It was very poignant and has left me rather melancholy. I felt like I was watching my life: authoritarian father, 3 siblings, loving mother. I remember how we would feel happier and more relaxed when dad was gone and how we would all toe-the-line when he was there. I even remember him telling one of my brothers to stop talking unless he could say something that actually improved upon the silence. To say something like that to a child only shuts down any enthusiasm or expression. As an adult, I could never figure out why talking to him was so difficult. But most everything that was said was criticized unless it bore directly upon religion. “Let’s talk about something a little more theocratic,” “Don’t say that. How do you think Jehovah feels when he hears you talk like that?” He wouldn’t just do it to us, either. I heard him tell other people, even adults, to talk about more ‘theocratic’ subjects.

In The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt, who plays the authoritarian father, talks about how he had wanted more out of life and was ashamed at how little his life really meant.  I know life wasn’t great for my father. He was extremely intelligent and excelled at school. He became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses when he was in pre-med. He dropped out because Armageddon was ‘just around the corner.’ He spent the rest of his life not using his intellect but working at dead-end jobs at the local saw-mill. His wife was an invalid and he had to raise three kids in a religion that kept kicking him in the nuts–metaphorically. Every time he would ask to be used in the congregation so he could exercise his intellect he was told he was too smart and he needed to stop being so arrogant. He never missed a meeting, assembly, or service. He read and studied all the endlessly redundant drivel the Society printed. Then he would obsessively try to fit into the mold of mediocrity the local elders required. He pounded this subservience into all our heads. It didn’t matter what personalities we might have, we needed to subject them to “God’s organization.” We needed to conform.

We learned this lesson so well, at 39 I am just now figuring out who I am–my older brothers haven’t been so lucky. I don’t know if they will ever be able to break the mold they have squeezed themselves into.  That’s what makes religion so reprehensible. It convinces people the prison is comfortable and necessary. It reminds me of a story I read while living in Northern California. Some years ago, a young girl was taken captive by some people who kept her in a box under their bed. They manipulated her so thoroughly she didn’t think she deserved any better. At some point, she was actually allowed to go get a job and every evening she would return to her box, handing her paycheck over to her captors. That is what some religions are like. They undermine a person’s sense of self to such a degree most people will endure unspeakable things in the name of God.

I don’t blame my father for teaching us to be doormats. He was doing what he thought he needed to. After all, it meant our everlasting lives. I remember reading an article in the Kingdom Ministry–which was a monthly bulletin only for JW’s–it was from the late 60’s and it instructed parents to not allow their children to go out socializing when they should be focused on serving Jehovah since ‘the end was so close.’ Parents everywhere did what they thought was right and raised a whole generation of kids in ascetic environments. Now, a great deal of that generation is waking up. They are middle-aged and their parents are dying. It has become clear that Armageddon has been “just around the corner” for almost 100 years. Jehovah’s Witnesses have no idea what they are talking about. My generation is slowly taking off the blinders. A lifetime under the strangle-hold of organized religion has created an interesting demographic. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and those who have survived the WTS are no exception. I have witnessed attitudes ranging from complacency to extreme courage. Some are angry, some are apologetic; some are born-again Christians, some are atheists; some carry the fear of eternal destruction with them, some have experienced a freedom from fear they never thought possible.

The Tree of Life never said what happened to one of the boys who died at nineteen, but it seems pretty clear he must have killed himself. The movie paints the picture of a boy with deep sensitivities. Sadly, some are affected in the same way when they leave the JW’s and cannot get past the damaging effects upon their minds. I don’t know if we will ever fully understand the magnitude of the damage caused by such mind control. I can only hope that the internet can help such ones realize they are not alone and they have nothing to fear.

My wish is that many more become like me and cast off the bindings of controlling, authoritarian religion. I want such ones to realize the joy of thinking for themselves and abandon the flawed course of their parents.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I don’t know why I thought this, but based on the timing I assumed he was killed in Vietnam. They certainly never said that. But it was a fascinating movie to watch. My wife watched it twice, because she felt like she missed something the first time. Not many movies do that to you. I loved the burned to glass planet at the end.

    There does seem to be a sort of post WTS awakening happening. So many of my peers are having the same experience. I wonder how the org is spinning it.

  2. No doubt hiding it from the rank and file. Blind little sheep.

    There was a lot of symbolism in the movie I didn’t quite understand. Did your wife find it clearer the second time around?

  3. As to Vietnam being the reason for the sons demise, I didn’t think such information would be delivered over the phone. I could be wrong though…

  4. I saw that movie in the theatre with my brother, during the summer weekend when I came out of the JW closet to my brother and mom, so it is dear to my heart. I want to watch it again now too, as I just remember it being incredibly moving but want to relish in the details. Did you ever see the movie “The Fountain?”

    As for the remainder of your post, I think JW provides a wonderful outlet for non-thinking people to consider themselves now Bible scholars, clued in to the secrets of life, etc., which is one reason people get swallowed in. As for intellects like your pre-med father and others I have personally known, I personally can’t fathom the appeal of getting involved and/or staying involved with JWs, except for reasons of family members, the only social safety net they have, etc. My mom is of the former, my brother remains of the latter.


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