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Being Myself: A (Brief) Memoir

By Don Emmerich ~

I realized at a fairly young age the importance of being myself, of being true to myself. By way of example, here’s a snippet from a self-admonitory journal entry, written my senior year of high school:

Don’t put on an act and pretend to be someone you’re not just to make people accept you. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself, but don’t lie about who you are. If people only accept the you that puts on a facade, they’re not really accepting you. Much more importantly than the way you act around others, however, is the way you act around yourself. If you’re some totally fucking weird schmuck, you might not want to reveal your weirdness to others, but you must at least accept this about yourself and not try to change who you are simply because it is unconventional by society’s standards. Simply put, be yourself. Act the way you feel you should act, not the way society says you should act.

Needless to say, I wasn’t always true to myself, often succumbing to peer pressure. And yet I think I did better than most. If you asked my old friends what they remember about me, I imagine many of them would say that I was unique, that I was my own person. Some would remember that I was an outspoken conservative, not a popular position at my school. Others would remember how I ditched some popular kid parties during my senior year to hang out with a group of nerdy sophomores. Still others would remember a time I went around school wearing a tampon around my neck. (Long story there. Let me just say that, for very nonsensical reasons, I believed this to be an act of self-expression.)

I dropped out of college my sophomore year to work for a congressional campaign. There I found myself to the left of everyone else, a position I’d never before been in. These people were basically religious right gun fanatics. We’re talking people who picketed abortion clinics during their free time, people who felt that they needed to arm themselves in preparation for the coming new world order. Although I initially thought they were crazy, the pressure to conform eventually got to me and I began adopting their beliefs, black helicopters and all. What can I say, I fell in love with politics. I looked up to these people. I trusted them. And I needed them to trust me if I was going to rise in politics.

But after several months I finally started to reassert myself. Again, evidence can be found in my journal. In one entry I affirm—contrary to the candidate—my belief that the government should legalize drugs and refrain from regulating pornography. In another entry I vow to never again steal an opposing candidate’s yard signs, something which I had done at the behest of the campaign manager. I repeatedly express my disgust with my coworkers’ morality:

I’m so sick of work. Politics is close-minded and vicious. We’re right, they’re wrong. In some cases that may be true, but the enemy is still a person. Instead of declaring war on him, we should seek to understand him and to love him.

As the campaign progressed, I also began to more boldly resist coworker pressure to become a Christian. Everyone else on the campaign was a born-again, and I knew it would be tough to rise in this political subculture if I remained a deist. Yet I remained a deist. I didn’t hesitate to tell people that I believed prayer to be a useless exercise. I remember explaining that, while I thought Christianity helped many people, I personally couldn’t buy into it for the simple reason that I could never know if it was true. After all, there was no way to prove that Jesus was the son of God, that he rose from the dead, etc. Another admonition from my journal:

Do what you feel is right, not what others tell you is right. There’s so much shit in Christianity and other religions; if you disagree with it, disagree with it!

Shortly after the campaign ended—I can now say, with a feeling of great relief, that we lost—I wrote:

Here I spent one year working with people who were good, honest Christians, but wrong and close-minded in several areas. For example, they correctly identified abortion as an evil, but also felt that anyone who entertained such thoughts as homosexuality and evolutionism were immoral [sic]. Gimme a break!

I believe that morality is pretty much common sense. We all know what’s right and wrong. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others like you yourself want to be treated...

Someone is not going to go to Hell, nor does he deserve less of our respect just because he engages in sodomy! If there is such a thing as Heaven and Hell, I’ll bet all the money I have that the moral homosexual is going up North, while the Christian heterosexual who is also a liar and adulteress [sic] is going to burn.

So that was me in November 1996. Judging from these entries, I seem to have had a pretty good head on my shoulders. I’d been tested at the campaign, had initially failed but then rebounded and renewed my resolve to be true to myself. Judging from these entries, it would appear that I had a promising future before me, one of self-exploration and eventually (it could reasonably have been hoped) less regressive political beliefs.

But other entries give a different impression. In these, you see what essentially amounts to a scared little boy, someone who has been too overwhelmed by the “mean world” and its “mean people” to be truly concerned about forging his own identity. You see a boy longing to return to the Edenic comfort of childhood:

I want to be in high school again. I don’t even want to be in college. What a scary, scary age. It’s like I’m officially an adult. That’s one of the last things I want to be...I was such a better person [in high school]. No comparison. I was just plain nice. I didn’t steal political yard signs. I wasn’t near as cynical. I didn’t try to trick and deceive. Things were simple and clear. Pretty much everything made sense. I knew where I was, who I was. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I could get to pretty much whatever I wanted.

In one passage after another, I obsess over my masturbation addiction, expressing horror that my sexual desires have such a hold over me:

I will not masturbate at all tomorrow. I will not even touch myself, or get in the position to masturbate. I will not watch any pornos. I need to get ahold [sic] of myself and take my life back.[2]

It was during this time that I bought a James Dobson book.[3] I didn’t know exactly what Dobson believed. I just knew he had a reputation as a moral guide and exemplar, and I desperately wanted one of those. It was also during this time that I took a temporary cashier job at a nearby Christian bookstore. I had no intention of converting. It’s just that I had an in, as the store owners had been campaign supporters. Moreover, I felt I needed—again quoting my journal—a break from “the cold, mean world,” and I reasoned that most Christian bookstore customers would be “nice and decent.”

Everyone at the bookstore assumed I was a believer, and I just let them go on believing that. Had they known I was a heathen, they would have undoubtedly spent a great deal of time trying to evangelize me, and I would have consequently disliked them. Instead they treated me like one of the gang, and I came to truly love and admire them.

There was Jenn, the 19-year-old store manager, who enjoyed the customers, even the annoying ones. I remember watching her listen to some batty old lady rattle on and on about her health problems. Jenn just stood there, keeping eye contact, nodding, expressing sympathy. When the old lady left, I turned to Jenn, prepared to exchange a derisory eye roll. But Jenn still had a smile on her face. Looking up, she said with complete sincerity, “She’s so sweet.”

Paul, a forty-something man, owned the store with his wife and viewed it as his life’s mission. His primary goal wasn’t making money but sharing the love of Christ. He sold Bibles at cost, feeling it wrong to “profit off the Word of God.” Paul had poured, not just his heart, but also his life savings into the store, and not surprisingly it was on the verge of bankruptcy. But, he kept reminding us, if we had a good holiday season, he might be able to keep the doors open.

I remember bringing my register till to him at the end of my shifts. His weathered face would rise in anticipation and then just as quickly fall when I told him the day’s totals, always a fraction of what he’d been expecting. “Oh well,” he would say, and then with complete conviction, “it’s all in God’s hands.” He really had that much faith. Which seemed silly to me but also admirable, perhaps saintly.

Working at the bookstore began to change me. After being there just ten days I wrote in my journal that my girlfriend needed “to re-establish a relationship with God” and “respect my sex rules,” which had rapidly grown puritanical. I started expressing even more guilt than before over my masturbation addiction and devised increasingly detailed plans for stopping.

Before long I wanted to, not just live like a Christian, but actually be one. I think the world was just too much for me. I think I feared that the nastiness I’d encountered in others, as well as my own rapacious desires, were symptoms of a greater problem and that existence itself might be a dark, chaotic, ultimately meaningless affair. Although I believed in a non-specific deistic god, I worried that there might not be an afterlife, and this terrified me. As I had written in a journal entry shortly after graduating high school:

If we’re all going to die no matter what, why does anything we do matter? No matter what kind of lives we live, they all have the same consequences! If two people are playing a game of chess, for example, why does it matter how well either person plays or what type of moves they make, if, regardless of everything else, they’re both going to lose?! I just don’t know anything. There are absolutely no answers to life. We just don’t know! Why does it matter if I get smart, or bone a lot of chicks, or do anything if in the end, no matter what I do, I’m still going to die, just like everyone else. Life is total uncertainty. It’s scary. Very scary.

Like I said earlier, I desired to return to Eden. I desired to be protected by a powerful, loving parental figure who would give me the help and assurance I needed.[4] Yes, part of me longed for self-discovery and self-expression, but my fears of life’s cruelties and ambiguities were proving to be too much.

But I couldn’t just believe, I couldn’t so easily make the intellectual sacrifice that I had for so long protested against. But then one day I got my hands on a book claiming to actually prove that Christianity was true, claiming, for example, archeology has confirmed many of the biblical narratives, that historical evidence supports the empty tomb and resurrection sightings.[5] Before opening the book, I more or less told myself that I had my answer, the key which would allow me to believe. I began reading the book, a couple pages here, a few paragraphs there, feeling just as amazed by the evidence as the author had promised I would.

Deep down, I’m sure I knew that I wasn’t being intellectually honest. I must have known that counterarguments existed and that an honest person would examine these counterarguments before reaching any conclusions. But I didn’t want to be intellectually honest, at least not that intellectually honest. I just wanted to be a Christian. And by reading this book (parts of it, anyway), I essentially felt that I had given myself permission to become one.

So that’s what I did. One night, probably seven weeks or so after starting at the bookstore, I knelt down beside my bed and prayed the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart. And then I asked him into my heart the next night. And the next several nights after that, just to be sure.

I quickly immersed myself in all things Christian. I began studying the Bible and listening to Christian radio. I began hanging out with other believers and going to church throughout the week. And I began to ditch my old friends.

I continued reading the Bible, going to church, praying that God would strengthen my faith. For several years I did my best to avoid situations that might threaten my faith. During times of doubt, I would immerse myself in one or another work of Apologetics. I would never of course read any opposing viewpoints. After all, I didn’t want to be corrupted by lies.Looking back, I can honestly say that this latter decision was the biggest mistake I have ever made. I had amazing friends, guys who were like brothers to me. Genuinely good people, sincere and well-intentioned. Guys who would have literally done anything for me. And yet I forced them out of my life.

I remember taking a walk one evening. I’d probably been a Christian four or five months. My old friends had invited me to go see the new Star Trek movie with them. Since I’d recently promised God that I wouldn’t see an R or PG-13 movie fort he next year—this being part of my new plan to whip masturbation—I declined their offer but, after much prodding, agreed to meet them at a party afterwards. So here I was, about an hour before I was supposed to meet them, walking through my old neighborhood, feeling what can only be described as a sense of dread.

Sitting down at a little playground, I remember feeling as though a sense of darkness (a demonic power, I assumed) was enveloping me, struggling to sow doubt in my mind. I feared that being with my old friends would only further weaken my faith.[6] And I couldn’t allow this. What I had with Jesus, I told myself, was precious, and I needed to protect it at all costs. So I vowed that, after making a brief appearance at the party, I would redouble my efforts to dissociate myself from them.[7] And that’s exactly what I did.

I continued reading the Bible, going to church, praying that God would strengthen my faith. For several years I did my best to avoid situations that might threaten my faith. During times of doubt, I would immerse myself in one or another work of Apologetics. I would never of course read any opposing viewpoints. After all, I didn’t want to be corrupted by lies.

Needless to say, I quickly grew alienated from myself, employing the classic defense mechanisms. For example, I began believing that God had healed my desire for vengeance (repression); I obsessed over society’s supposed lecherousness (projection); I adopted many of the traits and beliefs of Christians I admired, especially Paul from the bookstore (introjection); etc.; etc. I also tricked myself into believing that I held beliefs that, deep down, I didn’t really hold—for example, that I knew Christianity to be true. And I worked myself into unnatural emotional states—for example, feeling disgust upon hearing that others lived together out of wedlock or that they drank alcohol or that they—brace yourselves—practiced homosexuality.

In sum, I abandoned my adolescent desire to be true to myself. And not only did I try to be someone I wasn’t, but I convinced myself I was someone I wasn’t. For the next several years I lived like this, refusing to be myself, essentially just playing a part.

I don’t mean to create the impression that these were altogether horrible years. I met a lot of wonderful people during this time. Moreover, my faith gave me an inner peace that I’d never before known. And yet the costs of my self-alienation proved to be too much. I lost touch with who I really was, with my natural feelings, energies, talents, and perceptions. And the anxieties which faith was supposed to pacify didn’t go away. They simply receded deeper into my psyche. Since I was no longer dealing with them directly, they began to manifest themselves in different forms, in destructive neuroses and hatreds. In the end, I wasn’t any happier, just more neurotic and self-oblivious.

Towards the end of my time in high school I became a regular runner. I’d just leave my house, usually at night, and begin running, often without a destination in mind, often traversing several miles. I spent most of this time lost in thought, trying to make sense of things, especially the future.

I remember one run in particular, probably about a month before graduation. It was pretty late at night, and I ended up lying in the middle of a soccer field, looking up at the starry sky. Looking at the heavens always engenders fear in me, and that night was no exception. But I also remember feeling a sense of optimism. I already suspected that the world was a shitty, compromised place, but as I lay there I felt that, if I just remained true to myself, if I just followed my conscience, somehow everything would turn out okay.

How I wish I could go back in time. How I wish I could talk to that kid, tell him that he was right, that, just as he’d been writing in his journal, he really did know the secret to life, that he just needed to keep being honest and remain true to himself. I would tell him to stay away from conservative politicians. I would tell him to avoid all forms of dogmatism. I would assure him that if he just continued following his inner conscience everything would turn out okay.

I’d been a Christian for about four years when I started to grow unhappy. I remember one day asking my mom, herself a Reformed Jew, if she believed that Evangelical Christians were worse people than unbelievers. “I don’t really think so,” she said without much deliberation. I’d begun to consider that possibility, however. I’d encountered so many contemptible Christians. Hypocrites, narcissists, bigots. In a few short months I would become further disillusioned as most of the Evangelical world would line up behind George W. Bush as he waged his immoral war against the people of Iraq. I just couldn’t make sense of all this. After all, the New Testament claimed that believers were indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who was at work conforming them to the image of Christ.

I started to miss my old friends and regret turning away from them. I started to miss my old self. One day I sat down and read through some old journal entries. For the previous several years I’d told myself that I’d been such a heathen back then, a sinner rebelling against his creator. Yet these entries told a different story. I saw that I hadn’t been such a bad guy after all. Sure, I’d been foul-mouthed and unorthodox, but I’d had a good heart. I’d been determined to be truthful, no matter the cost.

However, it took me a long time before I would be ready to reexamine my faith, largely because I worried that the result would be unbelief and thus eternal damnation. Once you get the idea of hell drilled into your head, you can’t easily shake it. I also feared that leaving the faith would hurt others, especially the young people whom I’d instructed in Sunday school for several years. So I instead tried to become a better, more progressive dogmatist. I strived to be more honest, admitting, for example, that I didn’t understand why homosexuality was sinful or why unbelievers deserved to spend eternity in hell, but accepting these beliefs nonetheless. (A seemingly small but significant step.)

But no matter how hard I tried to update my faith, I remained unhappy. In my late twenties I felt lower than I ever had before. I wanted to stop going to church. At one point I contemplated leaving my wife. I basically just wanted to go back in time, find that kid on the soccer field and set him on a different path.

I felt a sense of great relief when in 2005 my pastor accepted a teaching position at Liberty University and my church subsequently disbanded. I guess I’d been blaming my unhappiness on the church and had convinced myself that if I could just find another church, another group of believers, my problems would go away. But they didn’t. I had problems with all the churches I tried. I just couldn’t stand the people. Here they were raising money to buy their churches new electronic bulletin boards while people overseas were struggling to make ends meet. And I couldn’t fathom how they could one minute be singing hymns to Jesus and the next praising the warmongers and torture-mongers in the Republican Party.

The unhappier I grew, the more I began to open my mind and tackle the difficult questions I’d avoided for so many years. I started to see that Apologetics was a fraud, that it was absurd to claim you could prove that God existed or that Jesus had risen from the dead. I also began striving to understand myself. By reading people like Karen Horney and Ernest Becker and by talking out my feelings with my wife, as well as a high school friend with whom I’d recently reconnected, I began to better understand myself and the motives which had been controlling me or so many years.

And so I finally realized that my faith had been a defense mechanism and discarded it.[8] Although I knew that doing this would open up a world of previously repressed anxieties, I no longer cared. I now knew that the costs of repression outweighed the benefits. I now just wanted to live honestly. I just wanted to be myself.

I’m not completely there. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage to completely be myself. But at least I’m heading in the right direction. My eighteen-year-old self, I imagine, would be pleased. Yes, I’m sure he would have trouble understanding what took me so long, but I know he’d be happy that I finally got back on the road.


[1] I was primarily referring to our volunteers.

[2] Unlike many others, I didn’t struggle with masturbation during adolescence. Strange as it may sound—and awkward as it is to reveal—I hadn’t even known that the act was possible until the summer I began working at the campaign.

[3] Life on the Edge: A Young Adult’s Guide to a Meaningful Future.

[4] Of course, Christianity appealed to me for other reasons, as well. For example, I liked the people I’d met at the store and desired an intimacy with them that could only be obtained by converting. I also liked—no, loved—Jenn. I realized fairly soon after meeting here that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. But, of course, a good Christian girl would never marry an unbeliever. Finally, I knew that converting would be the only way to open certain doors into the political world to which I still aspired.

[5] Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

[6] Which of course it would have, as our beliefs are largely affected by social consensus.

[7] I was able to find a myriad of biblical passages to support this decision.

[8] Please note that I’m not condemning religious faith in general. I’m talking about a very specific type of faith, what psychologist Richard Beck refers to as defensive faith. Like Beck, I believe it’s possible to believe for non-defensive reasons, and I don’t think this type of belief is harmful in the slightest.