22 Mar Life In The Shadows

In Memory Of

My brother, Joe, died 23 years ago; he was 28 years old. This month also marks the five year anniversary of the passing of my nephew, Aaron. The losses of these young men were unexpected tragedies that left deep scars in the hearts of our family.

Joe lived a life troubled by his own humanity. He made mistakes and lived in hardship, something which caused him enough confusion and shame to take his own life. He was unable to accept himself for who he was, largely because our cultural ideology told him he was unacceptable. I saw Joe try to make his life better. About a month before his death, he called me, expressing remorse for troubles he caused.

Aaron grew up an athletic, energetic, and bright child. He had the love and support of his family, but with too few tools to make sense of his world, his insecurities grew until they spun out of control. In his mind, his situation was dire; one he believed was beyond repair. He hung out in the wrong places and with the wrong people, something which cost his life. He was just 23 years old. Like Joe, I saw Aaron try hard to make positive changes in his life. Shortly before his death, he started practicing martial arts at a dojo where I taught classes, and after, we would stop and grab dinner together and talk. Aaron told me he wanted to change, and he wanted a better future.

Some people believe our lives are predetermined or even predesigned. I do not claim to know how life works in all its intricacies, but I believe Joe and Aaron died prematurely. I do not think God killed them, but he did not save them either. And, I know Joe and Aaron could have made better decisions, but I also believe they felt helpless to do so because they listened to what society told them, that they were beyond repair.

People make sense of their suffering through their beliefs, but how a person sees the world is not always their choice. Sometimes, society forces its view upon us, and although culture usually has good intentions, it oftentimes yields negative results.


Where there is light, there are shadows.


All humans have an inherent right to live, be free, and seek to improve oneself and their environment. All cultures have their own ideas about how to accomplish this, but because these ideologies preceded modern psychology, they often create unwanted and dangerous side effects.

In Western society, many have been taught to view the world through a binary lens. We define thoughts, words, and actions as being either right or wrong. And because of the strong religious influence on American culture, philosophical ideas of right and wrong expand into views of good and evil, something which gives connotations about a person’s value in the eyes of an all-knowing, ever-present, and all-powerful being. These ideas form clear archetypes for the godly and ungodly. As a child, I was taught clear character traits of God and his angels; I was told about all the love and protection they offered humanity. I was also given a sharp view of Satan and his demons, something which conjured the most horrific images imaginable, which in turn, created self-imposed feelings of terror. And so it was, from my earliest years, there was eternal light on one hand and unimaginable darkness on the other. There were no gray areas, and there was very little room for humanity. Society made it clear who I should become. I remember most of my childhood living in the hope that I was godly enough and in deep fear that I was not. Within every experience of every moment, my most profound fears were lurking about, waiting to attack if I was not vigilant.


The Contract

For a young child, and for many adults, I presume, moving through life with ideas about eternal salvation and damnation can be heavy. Luckily, there was a simple solution which offered protection against evil and guaranteed eternal happiness. While I did not have the faculties or skills to keep myself emotionally safe, I could enter into a contract with a most powerful, most intelligent, and ever-present force. And as long as I upheld my end of the contract, I would receive blessings in this life and for all eternity. But, if I could not uphold my end of the deal, then I would fall into darkness, left under its control, devoid of anything other than eternal suffering.

While society provided the archetypes that I needed to avoid and embrace, these ideologies also offered the standard proofs of evidence that I was upholding my end of the contract. In the church I attended, there were several pastors. They all had homes larger than the one where I lived. They drove expensive cars and wore fancy suits; they never seemed to be lacking. Affluence, we were told, was evidence of God’s blessings for living a life free of sin. It never occurred to me this was merely rationalized propaganda put out by leaders who wanted to live off the salaries of others. Perhaps because we all like material blessings, it was easy to look past the materialism and hope we could find our own desired prizes purchased with faith. Growing up, I developed a clear understanding that wealth was a gift for being godly, and calamities such as natural disasters, disease, and hardships were the consequences for living out of God’s grace. In this paradigm, there were no random events, and each experience was the direct result of our behavior.

Everything that happened in my early years was taken as direct evidence for my performance of the contract with God. Life was clear: When good things occurred, it was God’s blessings, the upholding of His end of the deal. When bad things happened, it was my own acts of malevolence that voided our contract; me failing to uphold my end of the agreement. We were never allowed to question whether God was upholding His end of the deal. He was always incapable of making mistakes or causing unnecessary suffering. The only variables in explaining my circumstances was my own behavior and belief.

Off Center

Beliefs formed to help people live together in harmony are not a bad idea. But if they are not rooted in a deep understanding of human nature and the natural order of the physical world, then any results they produce are going to be more imaginary than real. As a child, I was taught to trust in this false dichotomy: All human beings must choose a life based on faith, one that will lead us out of sin and towards salvation. We must all hold up our end of the contract. But, what if the agreement is not clear? What if it is skewed? What if the authors of these ideas had little understanding or tolerance for fundamental human nature?

Many behaviors, which are a regular part of being a human being, were deemed as unhealthy, unnatural, and immoral by theistic doctrine. The fact that I can live my life with complete moral veracity and still be labeled as a sinner sheds light on an interesting fact. The ideology, it seems, is less focused on improving human behavior and more focused on preserving itself as a way of institutionalized living. The contract may promise happiness and protection, but in return for what? We would like to think our side of the agreement means living a good, decent life, but that is not true. Our end of the bargain is to have faith in the system, even though it routinely leads us astray. And questioning the system is an immediate and permanent breach of the contract.

When a compass is not correctly calibrated, then anyone who uses it will continually be confused and lost. Likewise, a belief system which is not calibrated correctly with the physical laws of the universe will eventually lead one astray.


Each person has a relatively unique experience in life. Ideology may tell us that our current situation in life is the result of our own ability to have faith and live in accordance with our contract, but it is simple to see that, for the most part, our life experiences are either random or the result of causes over which we have no control. I believe we can influence our environments, but not control them. If we could control the physical world, then there would be no need for powerful, all-knowing beings.

As for those of us who find ourselves bound to our current religious ideologies, if we truly believe our current circumstances are a way to gauge our standing with God, then we will interpret those circumstances as true, even if we have no way to make sense of them. Because we rely on the judgment of a higher authority, we will assume that any breaks in logic or understanding are due to our shortcomings and inability to understand nature.

People living under this type of paradigm see a life free from hardship as a form of God’s approval. Likewise, those who find themselves in difficult circumstances assume they are doing something wrong. When we are going through difficult times, we have a natural tendency to reach out to God or reestablish a new commitment to the ideology. “God, if you just get me through this, then I promise I’ll…”. The fact most of us have experienced this kind of situation is testament to the fact that some part of us feels like calamity mostly happens when we step too far away from our beliefs. We never assume the compass is broken; we believe we are reading the compass wrong or that we are being deceived. We feel being lost is the result of our own moral shortcomings. The superstitious fail to recognize random experiences, finding culpability and fear in whatever they happen to notice.

Role Acceptance

Many of the people I have met who have the strongest commitment to this dualistic way of thinking are people who have comfortable lives. It is ironic that religious people who have experienced relatively little hardship are quick to judge people caught up in turmoil. They admonish those who are suffering to dig more deeply into the contract’s trenches, because they are living proof of the rewards reaped from being a good renter of knowledge and power.

It is simple to prove circumstances and faith have little to no correlation. I know righteous people who are blessed and immoral people who are facing hardships, but I also know many corrupt people who prosper at the expense of others. Likewise, I have seen good people suffer unspeakable atrocities even though they have most faithfully executed their side of the contract with their beloved creator.

And what about the people who, at random, are dealt a more difficult life? Most of these people, at some point in their lives, surrender fully to the paradigm, even if it is a last ditched effort to release themselves from suffering. But when the hardship does not stop, there is only one realization they can conclude: they assume if their circumstances are handed out by an omniscient and omnipotent being, then that supreme being must know something about them that they cannot understand about themselves. It is easy to see how someone can be pushed to a point where they must accept who they believe God says they are.

This is a perverted form of self-acceptance where a person, regardless of their efforts and actions, accepts that they are incapable of being moral. The belief system, unfortunately, has already taught them that if they are not the archetype of goodness, then they must be the archetype of evil. Once a person accepts what they believe to be God’s judgment, then they will accept themselves and assume they are beyond acceptance and repair. People in this situation not only lose hope of acceptance and redemption, but they also stop trying to improve themselves as they embrace their new role. This pseudo form of self-acceptance can begin a downward spiral which leads to a point of no return.

Where there is no Hope, the is no reason for living.


Recalibrating The Compass

We have all experienced the pain of loss. My family is not the only one to lose loved ones who lost their way. Human beings who have no hope find no reason to try to move forward. We must never allow our loved ones to lose their confidence. They need to be taught that difficult circumstances happen randomly, and not everything is under their control. Not everything is their fault.

It is okay to make mistakes; that is how we learn. Nobody is broken beyond repair, no matter who says they are, or what the cultural ideology tell us. Everyone has the potential to create a better life. There is no person or power more significant than the potential which lies in every human being. Belief systems have great things to offer some people. They can provide support because they help strengthen our convictions. But like a double-edged sword, belief can fuel our conviction to pursue truth, or it can justify our conviction to give credence to lies.

Embrace those you love. Warn them of the natural cycles of comfort and pain. Teach them to embrace the good times and to wait out the storms when they arrive. Do not abandon those you love and encourage them not to abandon themselves. Help soften the grip of societal expectations and religious dogma, understanding that no matter who you believe is pulling life’s strings, it is the human being who has been gifted the freedom to decide their fate by the choices he or she makes. Regardless of our ideas about gods and demons, the light of human goodness can always overcome the darkness within.

Michael Ken