The One Thing That Jehovah’s Witnesses Taught Me
When you’re raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and you later leave the religion, chances are some will try to get you to return and become an active member once again. They may threaten you with shunning, or try to “reason” with you. Those who try to reason with you may talk about the “good things” you learned as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, the hope of earth becoming a paradise for all Jehovah’s Witnesses, the morals they teach, and so on.
Let me tell you the one thing that Jehovah’s Witnesses taught me that will apparently stick with me forever. The one thing that I learned from the first day I walked into their Kingdom Hall at age 5, and the one thing that is still with me over 40 years later. The one thing that I learned from years and years of attending their services and assemblies, from being surrounded by other Jehovah’s Witnesses, and from adhering strictly and faithfully to their teachings.
I learned loneliness.
Jehovah’s Witnesses taught me loneliness, and they taught the lesson well. They began teaching me this lesson when I was a child and didn’t stop until I left the religion, and it still sticks with me today.
Some who are Jehovah’s Witnesses may argue that you can’t be lonely as a JW because you’re surrounded by a “worldwide brotherhood” of men and women “united in worship of the one true god, Jehovah,” or some other mindless tripe they’ve learned to repeat endlessly. These phrases sound well and good, but they just don’t hold up under closer inspection.
To explain how and why Jehovah’s Witnesses taught me the lesson of loneliness, I could talk about demographics. Congregations of JWs are kept small on purpose and may include around 75 persons in total. With only about 75 people in a congregation, there are usually just one or two who are of the same age and in the same situation as you (married versus single, working versus stay-at-home, etc.), and what are the chances that those one or two people will have so much in common with you that you can be real friends? Unlike other religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses have no formal programs for organizing social groups or events of any kind, so meeting new people and forming friendships was something you had to do on your own. Their emphasis has always been on sermons and studies, and never on fulfilling the need for socializing among members.
I could also talk about being a woman as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their official rules and policies aside, officially women were commonly dismissed and ignored. Being single never helped matters any, as married women had their husbands and families to care for and to spend time with. Mothers especially seemed to find it difficult to make time and space for single women, so even if there were women around your age in your congregation, once they were married and pregnant, you were invisible.
Loneliness inside the congregation is also learned because of how often Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to shun other members who are perceived as not doing enough or not living up to vague, man-made standards. Note the Shunning category for how often they do this in their publications. As a shy child who was horribly self-conscious, I hated participating in their meetings, even though I had a voracious appetite for study and always obeyed all their rules to the letter. However, my quiet nature made it easy for people to overlook me.
I might also talk about how things were worse in my home because of my parents; my father was never one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, so many other couples in the congregation avoided us as a family because they didn’t feel he was good association for them. My mother was plagued by emotional problems and was very harsh and judgmental to people, which also didn’t help. When other families talked about how they got together to enjoy some fun, I would be left standing there, awkward and alone, always the odd one out.
Being lonely for all these reasons would be enough, but the real reason I learned this loneliness while one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is the emotional vacancy and distance they create and even nurture for many of their members.
This emotional scarring began early on for me, as my father’s violent temper was revealed over the years. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach women to tolerate this type of abuse and to be more loving to their husbands when they’re abusive, in the hopes of impressing them with their behavior and converting them. This sounds good in theory, but in reality this would often just encourage my father to be even more abusive. He knew he could do anything he wanted and there were no consequences, as a matter of fact, the more violent he became, the more loving my mother was obligated to act. Of course this just encouraged him to be even more abusive! The never-ending circle in my home of abuse and violence, silence and submission, and then more abuse and violence resulted in my mother attempting suicide on more than one occasion, and she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals starting from when I was age 11.
Unequipped emotionally to handle his outbursts and abuse, my mother also found an outlet for herself by turning on me, taking her frustrations out on me or goading my father into abusing me. After all, if he was screaming at me, he wasn’t screaming at her. This caused a huge form of emotional loneliness in my own home. I was the odd one out with the congregation and then with my own parents, becoming the lightning rod of hate from both of them, an easy target for anger and abuse. I have no memories of closeness with either of my parents, only memories of screaming, anger, blaming, name-calling, insults, degrading comments, teasing, ridicule, and so on.
Before anyone tells me to just forgive my parents, note that this type of behavior continued long after I became an adult so that even to this day I cannot talk to either of them, as the yelling and insults still continue. Needless to say, there is still no emotional closeness between us; they’re strangers at best, and my abusers at worst.
Being lonely in other relationships is also something I learned as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because of the patriarchal, misogynistic teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses that simply told women what to do and what was for their benefit without ever actually asking them how they felt, women typically learned to simply squelch their real feelings and emotions when around men. Not only did this teach men to become oblivious to the feelings of women, but many of the men I knew in the religion delighted in bossing around the women and would tease them about having to be in submission, or would scream and berate them in front of others, knowing they could get away with it. The few men I dated inside the religion also had this “I’m in charge and this is what I say” attitude, so that it didn’t matter what I felt even if I did dare express myself. This too created an emotional vacuum and made me feel distant and isolated, even when in a relationship.
To add to this loneliness inside the congregation and at home, Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that making friends outside the religion was a huge no-no. “Worldly” people as non-JWs are called were presented as dangerous, immoral, and influenced by Satan, not to mention ignorant, out to hurt you, and going to die at Armageddon. This causes a huge separation between Jehovah’s Witnesses and non-Witnesses, even family members. Needing to keep myself separate and being taught this attitude about people made me feel alone when at school or work, when shopping, or when doing anything else in my life that involved non-JWs. So, I had no friends outside the religion and no friends inside the congregation, and was isolated and abused at home as well.
Some might jump all over this and assume that I didn’t do my part in reaching out to others or in taking the initiative to make friends. Let me stop those people right now and tell them that I worked very, very hard to call people and ask if they wanted to go out or socialize in some way, to show concern for others, and to create fun events for families and their children. What I found is that most Jehovah’s Witnesses were more than happy to take, but not give. They would come to a get-together I would have, eat my pizza and drink my punch, play cards with others, and then leave. They would show up for an afternoon at the bowling alley with their kids, and then leave. In some cases they would hardly even converse with me when playing cards or bowling or whatever else. I would never, ever hear from them again. This too caused not just a physical loneliness but an emotional distance, as I never, and I mean never remember feeling close to one single person while growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Being lonely about other people is hurtful and painful enough, but Jehovah’s Witnesses also taught me to be spiritually lonely, despite their claims of worshiping a “loving” god. When you are constantly told to do more, are constantly judged by your preaching activity and participation in services, and left to fend for yourself in an abusive home without the elders of your religion saying one word to you, and I mean not one word, you learn that you worship a distant, cold, harsh god. My mother was in a psychiatric hospital after overdosing on pills, and they didn’t think to ask the 11-year-old girl if she needed any help at home. They would have families over for cards or movies, and never thought to invite the single woman with no one at home to talk to, the one who had to work and pay her own way and completely take care of herself because her mother was mentally ill and her father was an abusive, violent animal. These are the same men who demand obedience because they are “appointed by god.” It is impossible to feel connected and secure with a god whose supposed earthly channel of communication neglects you so often.
So there it is. The one thing that JWs taught me, and taught me well. They taught me to be lonely. They taught me that I was dispensable, invisible, inconsequential, and unnecessary. I had no friends in the religion and have no idea how to make friends now. I sacrificed my right to have normal relationships and to bring children into this world because of being put in a corner and isolated in my own home and in my own religion, and now I feel nothing emotionally but gaping emptiness. I sometimes read of other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who have moved on, who have married or who have children, and it literally, physically hurts. I see people at work with their friends and their family and I hold in the tears just until I get home. Some days I only make it to the parking lot. I sit in my apartment feeling disconnected from everyone around me, just as I did the first time I sat in the Kingdom Hall, just as I did every time I was around Jehovah’s Witnesses, and just as I did the last time I went to one of their meetings. They taught me to be alone and to be lonely.
Lesson learned. No, I won’t be coming back.