Finding My Way Home
Being brought up in a Christian home, the name Jesus was nothing new to me. Church was what I was guilted into doing at Christmas and sometimes Easter, and religion meant putting on a fake smile and becoming a hypocrite to please the people I considered to be judging me the whole time I was in their presence. I have had a heart to help people in the most severe conditions since I was a small girl, asking my mum to help me run a car boot sale fundraiser for the children that lived in Africa (that’s as specific as I got!). I have also always believed strongly in hope, love, relationships and serving others. I just didn’t know what any of this had to do with that big building I had to endure each Christmas.
As I grew so did my interest for people and so after leaving school I went on to study psychology at university. It fascinated me, especially the social psychology and the different theories as to how we cope with difficult situations in life differently. After volunteering in Malawi for 3 months during my first year I had wondered how people that faced so much emotional turmoil seemed to cope so well, compared to Western countries where we would be straight to the doctors for a sick note and some anti-psychotic drugs with the slightest sign of difficulty. What was the difference in our lifestyles that made an abused mother in Africa get up out of her bed early every morning to serve others, whilst a distraught mother in the western world would “have a headache” for 2 weeks? Could it really just be about physical survival in Africa? Surely there was some stronger coping mechanism at play behind the smiling faces? And then it hit me…one of the main differences I had noticed was the increased church attendance and high levels of and dependence on faith in Africa. Cynical as ever I decided this was ignorance and desperation pushing these people to believe in something as a coping technique and nothing more. I assumed they believed because they had to, to remain sane and functioning, not because they really believed.
So I decided to use my dissertation project to investigate my narrow minded hypothesis. It had already been well established that religion beliefs were linked to better psychological health, but I wanted to know if these beliefs were genuine and really helping, or if it was just a man-created crutch to lean on in hard times. I conducted a study investigating the effect different types of beliefs and religious practices had on psychological well being and ability to cope in an unjust world. I was sure I would prove religion to be a hypocritical coping technique.
As part of my data collection I contacted St. Andrews Parish Church, a church I had attended a few times locally with my mum that I had reasonably enjoyed. As I had previously done with other religious institutions, I went along on a Sunday with my questionnaires and got ready to yawn my way through the service before handing them out at the end. I was going through a pretty rough time personally and was not interested in spending my weekend like this, when I really wanted to be out with friends, but I had always understood the importance of my degree and so I reluctantly found a seat as alone as possible in the small church building.
Everything happened as it always had through my childhood; people arrived in nice clothes and smiles; polite chit chat was made; everyone hushed and sat as the Bible came out shortly followed by the minister. But then, like never before, as the minister began to preach, for the first time ever I felt like I could hear him properly. Everything he said related to my life. He talked about some cool hippy guy who stood against authority and fought for those I love the most; the poor and desperate. He loved them so much he even died a humiliating death for them. Surely this wasn’t from that book I had dismissed as boring and irrelevant for so many years? I sat in the pews amazed, feeling tiny. Smaller than I had felt in years, but not in a bad way, it was a huge sense of relief. It was like after years of trying to put on the right mask and persona for those around me, always struggling to understand them and often getting hurt as a result, I felt as though I had come home and I was allowed to be a small child again, needing looked after, weak and vulnerable. It was everything I didn’t want to feel, and everything I desperately needed to feel all at the same time.
I returned the following week, but I convinced myself it was just to collect my questionnaires. The week after that I told myself I was just going because I had nothing better to do (despite the hour journey I was making from my university accommodation). After several weeks of this I lay in bed on a Saturday night with cold, slow tears streaming down my face as I asked God to give me a friend to help me through this change. If I absolutely had to come home to Him I refused to do it alone, and would just turn my back on it all if that was my only option.
The following day as the service finished and I got up to sneak out quietly I was stopped by a beautiful girl around my age that I had never seen before. She asked me my name and scooped me into her arms and into an instant friendship. It was at that moment I realised I wasn’t alone at all. In fact quite the opposite; I’d finally found my way home to my family.
Oh and it turned out I was proved wrong as well, religious practices or faith beliefs do have a positive impact on our psychological health but only when they involve a personal relationship with one God, with whom the individual can relate to and communicate with regularly. The “hypocritical” practices can even help! It turns out that after years of building walls around my confused heart, the outcome of every action and “practice” comes down to the intentions of the heart behind it.