That Post-Faith Kind of Numb.
Feeling numb inside? If so, you’re not the only one. Someone reached out to me a couple days ago to ask for some help as they navigate the Numbness leg of their post-faith journey.
Now, today I felt I could use a break from the post I’ve been working on about finding new community after leaving the church, so I thought I’d take an hour to share with all of you a few quick thoughts following this conversation with my new friend.
We’re talking about the kind of thing where after losing your faith in God, you experience a kind of emotional apathy toward pretty much all of life. It’s where you just feel numb all over. Where you feel empty and emotionless and like your feelings have just sort of laid down and given up.
It seems this is a common mix of non-emotions on the post-faith journey.
We’re often baffled by it. We’ve just stepped forth into a reality we’re confident in. We’re feeling excited and free to embrace life as it truly is. We’re liberated!
And then WHAM! apathy. And we suddenly feel numb and dead inside.
We want to know… why?
Why am I feeling numb inside? Where have my emotions gone? I want to feel free and liberated and happy and amazing, but instead I just don’t feel, well, anything! WHY???
But if you think about it, these feelings make sense, especially in the context of certain religious traditions. Evangelical Christianity, for instance, can be like a candyland of warm fuzzies. For a significant portion of your life, you’ve been filled with mountains of succulent spiritual delights that flooded your emotive framework with Paul Bunyan-sized affirmations.
Think about it…
You were right at the center of the Divine Creator’s attention.
He wanted nothing more than to see you fulfilled and provided for.
And he had built a Special, Golden Kingdom for you to one day join him in.
You were surrounded with a community to help make sure you were cared for.
You regularly received instruction about how to become a happier, more joyful, more successful, more connected child of God.
You joined dozens or hundreds of others to sing jubilant and emotionful songs about how happy and perfect the universe was under his fatherly watch and provision.
You were even given a role, customized to your own God-given-and-manicured gifts.
God had a spot picked out for you.
For you alone.
To make you feel special.
His. Beloved. Child.
And your heart was overwhelmed with delight.
You were flooded with excitement and joy and a sense of purpose and the feelings of inner peace.
And it was good.
So good you wanted more of it.
And more and more and more.
You gave your whole life to it. And it felt good.
It felt good because it always feels good to give yourself to something perceived as rewarding.
But then, eventually, something else happened.
Eventually you caught a peak behind the proverbial curtain to discover things were not quite as they had seemed. And everything you had ever believed began to dissolve into the myth and mirage that you now suddenly realized it had always truly been.
And it felt terrible.
Oh, the realization of discovering truth and of then coming to the point of fully embracing that truth—this can feel quite exciting. Very real. And finally honest. And intoxicatingly liberating.
Allowing yourself to let go of fairytales can feel quite exciting and liberating at first.
Then you settle into your new normal. And let’s admit it. The new normal is a lot less, well, emotionful.
There’s no more excitement about being in the center of a divine creator’s attention. There’s no more promise of a golden kingdom awaiting you on the other side of the rainbow. No more indwelling spirit to polish up your happiness center. And no more warm-and-fuzzy candyland community to tell you how awesome and successful you’re destined to be. No more special role for you to play. No longer has your destiny been carved out since the beginning of time-eternal.
And the truth stings. You had believed it so much, so fully, so completely. Your heart was on the hook. Your entire life had swallowed the sparkling sinker. And now you see it for what it was. You were duped. You fell for the magical stage performance. And now you feel like a moron. Like Augustus Gloop, so excited were you by the chocolate river that you flopped in face first, to your own embarrassment and the demise of all dignity.
You had known the high of all emotionally vibrant highs.
And now those highs are gone.
And I think here is where the emptiness makes sense. I think this is where it’s natural that we feel numb as a result. It’s a byproduct of health.
Could it be Healthy to be Numb Inside?
In our fairytale faith, we had had an unrealistic and therefore unhealthy view the self, and this unrealistic view produced a euphoria of emotions. And now as we’ve acquired a more realistic sense of self and of the world and of our place within it, we’re coming to a place of greater health. As a consequence of our healthier self, our emotions have to adjust.
Our emotions were on narcotics and now they need to detox.
They need to sober up.
It’s like they’re on a terrible hangover, and now they’re sitting on the couch staring at the wall while the television plays in the background. They need to drink lots of water and maybe eat a burrito to help absorb the poisons.
I think this is where a lot of us spend some time after we’ve left the faith and begun to come to grips with all that our journey has shown us.
Yes, we feel numb. Of course we do. We’re hungover, and we need to replace all the poison with nutrients and real sustenance. The nutrients and sustenance doesn’t make our brains light up quite the way the booze and narcotics of faith did, however, so our emotions feel numb or even dead by comparison.
But they’re not dead, they’re just acclimating to health.
And eventually they’ll come along. Give it some time, and eventually we’ll feel pretty damn good again. Even better than we did before. Because in the context of a healthy mind, we’ll know our renewed emotions for what they are: Grounded in reality.
And I can tell you from the other side of the hangover:
Reality feels pretty damn delicious.
Ok, so... This was supposed to be a quick post when I sat down to start writing it an hour ago. It's kind of got a lot of words but hopefully still quick and easy to read. And hopefully helpful and therapeutic. Damn, I love you guys.
Damn, I love you guys.
Postscript: A Perfect Song for the Hangover
When I first heard this song in January, I fell absolutely in love with it, and it’s sense become one of my favorites. (Actually, I love the entire album but that’s beside the point.) I think the song’s primarily about growing up and losing the warm glow of childhood. It’s about realizing you’ve grown up and become an unhappy drunk who’s numb and emotionless and needs to sober up. He want’s to feel something again.
To me it speaks a lot about this space of the post-faith journey we’ve been talking about in this post. In the video it shows lead singer Jack Met running around chasing after his childhood self as he tries to regain all he’s lost. But the cool thing about this post-faith life is that as we sober up we find an even better self than what we’ve left behind. It may be kind of melancholy but definitely the hopeful kind.
Take a few minutes to watch the video below and fall in love with the song if you haven’t already. Here’s the words to the refrain.
“Sober Up” by AJR
Won’t you help me sober up
Growing up it made me numb
And I want to feel something again
Won’t you help me sober up
All the big kids they are drunk
And I want to feel something again
Won’t you help me feel something again
How’s it go again?
One More Thought: As a lot of you know, my book The Rise and Fall of Faith: A God-to-Godless Story for Christians and Atheists details my own story of numbness and of finding my way to full health. If you haven’t yet read it, here is your official invitation. Cheers to the Next Chapter!