On Writing (and Re-Writing) My Own Story

Grete Rachel Howland
7 min readNov 13, 2019
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Four years ago I started my blog Weird Name by writing a bunch of essays about losing my religion. Literally, I used R.E.M.’s famous lyric as the title for a 12-part series detailing how and why I had come to a place where I was ready to say goodbye to Christianity for good.

It was the obvious option, I suppose, that title. Low hanging fruit. But it was apt, too. What I’d experienced in walking away from Christianity did feel like a kind of loss. I was happier, freer, but I was also grieving what the faith had cost me in my youth in terms of confidence and compassion, and what leaving it was costing me in my adulthood in terms of community and structure. The belief in God with which I was once filled had faded away over the course of many years for a variety of reasons (all detailed in the aforementioned series) and coming to the point at which I knew that it was gone was a little heartbreaking, too.

Now, having spent a handful of years processing this so-called loss and trying to figure out what, if anything, I believe about the workings of the universe, I realize that I want to change the way I talk about my departure from the faith. Using words like “loss” or “losing”, as appropriate as they were for some time, has come to feel like I’m doing the same thing to myself that I despise other still-believers doing to me: seeing my transition as involving a casualty, as resulting in a lack or the sense that something’s missing. Seeing this change as sad.

I suppose technically there was the cessation of the existence of something — or, my belief in something. And there was also sadness, in moments. Though I was never sad about not being a Christian anymore once I knew that was what I wanted for myself, I was sad when friendships seemed changed for the worse because of my decision. I was sad when people who previously had respect for me because of my passion for God suddenly approached me with doubt and pity.

Though I understand where those people are coming from, I don’t want to allow for or add to that kind of connotation anymore, one that implies something good was taken from me, or slipped from my hands. The church has taken enough from me already, and my decision to divest myself of that world was me taking my life back — or taking hold of it in the first place, since I never really had a chance to be in control of it before.

So I no longer want to say that I lost my faith. I want to say that I chose to leave Christianity. I chose not to keep pretending to believe in what I had come to see as unbelievable. You can argue that it’s just semantics. But also, words matter, and being able to control the implications of one’s life narrative is — at least for me — essential to feeling autonomous in the world. Given that, I would like to reframe the story as one that involved the execution of my power to do what I want with my heart.

The truth is that no matter what words I use, there will always be those who react negatively to my story of leaving the church. I know this. It’s disappointing, of course, because I’m quite proud of the courage it took for me to break into a new life, and I would love for the people I care about to share in that pride with me. It’s also difficult not to be offended when someone refuses to believe you when you say you’re happy doing a new or different thing. But again, I’m not surprised. Evangelicalism precludes its devotees from accepting the fact that there are genuinely contented people living good lives firmly outside its ranks.

On top of all that, this is a story of shifting identities, of performances abandoned, and humans — no matter their religious inclinations — tend to struggle mightily with such things. In a valiant effort to maintain a sense of stability in and at least partial control over our worlds, whatever they look like, we get attached to identities. We get attached to our own identities, and we get attached to the identities of others. Eventually, to borrow language (and whole concepts) from Buddhism, these attachments end up causing us suffering.

There are a variety of scenarios in which we might suffer as a result of our attachment to identities, pretty much all of them having to do with the inevitably impermanent nature of everything. One is when we suffer because circumstances beyond our control have come to tear us from a job or a role in life that we really identified with, that we wrapped our sense of self around. Once we feel we are no longer that thing — a teacher, an athlete, a spouse, a straight-A student — we spiral into existential crisis. We don’t know who we are anymore.

We might also be so attached to certain identities for ourselves that we’re unable to take advantage of opportunities for growth when they come. The thought of not being the thing we’ve come to know ourselves as is just too scary, even if unbounded potential (and the possibility for new identities) lie just around the corner. Like a snake afraid to shed its skin, we choose to stay the same rather than risk the death of the familiar. Unfortunately, the death of the familiar is necessary for new life to thrive, and so that potential suffocates inside of us.

And then there’s our attachment to the identities of others. Often our sense of self depends just as much on other people staying nice and snug in their positions in our lives as it does on our own ability to fill out the costumes for the parts we’ve assigned ourselves. When people step out of the positions we’ve become attached to them having — when someone you love leaves the religion you thought you were in together, for example — we suffer just as much as we would if our own identity was stripped away.

Here, the suffering might manifest itself as anger toward the other person, as a feeling of being betrayed, as pity, or as denial. Unfortunately, in these situations, the suffering also often spreads. It seeps into the relationships that are now under stress because of the other person’s departure, intentional or not, from the identity of theirs we’d grown attached to. Resentment builds and eventually boils over. Confusion leads to snapping or, on the other end of the spectrum, the silent treatment. Panic is expressed as judgment. In any of these cases, the person who did the changing finds themselves punished for their move.

This is not to say that the person who’s suffering because of their loved one’s change means to punish the person who’s changing. Nor is it to say that any individual doesn’t have the right to feel how they will about the decisions made by those around them. It is to say, though, that it can really suck to have your personal evolution met with condescension, to feel like a new bloom and yet be treated like a weed.

Maybe I stuck with the narrative of loss for so long because I wanted to mitigate some suffering-others’, and my own. I knew what leaving the church looked and felt like to the people still in the fold, having myself spent years trying desperately to wrestle many souls down to the ground and keep them there, and I knew what the consequences for me would be.

Maybe I used a word that implied passivity on purpose. It would have been too much of an affront to those I loved (and who loved me) to claim my full intention in the process. My purposeful and shameless rejection of what we’d agreed was the most important thing would have negated any knowledge they had of me as a good and holy person.

Well, I’m too old for that now. And life is too short. I can no longer afford to take responsibility for what other people think of me or how they treat me. I will find the people who do celebrate my growth, who are proud of me, and who do trust my capacity for knowledge and right judgment as much as they trust anyone’s, and I will invest in them. They will let me choose the words to describe my journey that feel correct to me, and I will love them for it.

The God I grew up with, I was told He loved us all unconditionally, but that wasn’t true. Not if you were a woman. Not if you were queer. Not if you wouldn’t or couldn’t love Him back. The truth is that I did not just lose that God; I intentionally rejected Him. I tore him out of my book completely.

This was my choice. To reject the God I grew up with. To leave all of that behind. Why any adult would want to continue to worship a deity exhibiting that kind of “ love “ is at this point beyond me, but it is also none of my business. My story is about actual love, about courageous growth, and about letting go of every limit I’m tempted to place on myself and others. Whoever can read it and still believe that I’m worthy is welcome by my side.

Originally published at http://www.weird-name.com on November 13, 2019.

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Grete Rachel Howland

Reflections on growing up in evangelical Christianity and finding freedom on the other side of belief.