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  • Tim Mathis

A time capsule from a year of post-traumatic growth: How losing faith made my life better.

In 2010, I made a series of decisions that wrecked my life when I quit church abruptly, left my career, and alienated myself from most of my friends. I'll let you decide if it's legitimate to call that trauma, but my year was plagued by the type of feelings that psychologists associate with it - anxiety, panic, detachment and confusion, difficulty believing what has happened, numbness, withdrawal from community.

There's a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, where some people who go through really difficult events figure out ways to become stronger, more resilient people in the aftermath. They develop a greater appreciation for life, build stronger relationships, see new possibilities, or come to appreciate their own strength. Here's a helpful article about it from the American Psychological Association.

Recently I found this post on "Top 10 Learnings from 2010" that I wrote reflecting on that year, and re-reading it, I realize now that it's essentially about what that process looked like for me - how I coped, relationships that pulled me through, and seeds that were planted that produced fruit later. It's a personal record of the beginnings of post-traumatic growth.

Somewhere down the line I might write a book that ties together the events between I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation and The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. There's a story there somewhere about how a person moves from the badlands of lost identify and purpose towards a new, more meaningful life. If I do, it'll chronicle the process I started writing about here, in 2010. Some of the post is explicit about what I learned (go get some exercise). Some of it hints at the reasons why it was a period of growth vs stagnation (a strong marriage relationship, a job on a psych unit that taught coping skills and perspective). Looking back, I can see in it a lot of my personal origin story, and the beginning stages of the process of integrating old, difficult experiences with a new, better reality.

Hopefully it'll be a helpful read for those of you who can relate.

Top 10 learnings from 2010

I've been cleaning the house, listening to The National and feeling nostalgic, so it's time for another blog post. It's been too long, friends.

I love the holidays because only a cold-hearted sheep dag wouldn't. Also, I love the end of year nostalgia and optimism that they inspire: birth and hope, out with the old in with the new, encouraging one to both reflect on the things that one has learned during the previous year and consider the hopes that one holds for the year ahead. In that spirit I've been thinking about the things that I've learned this year. It's been a big year for Angel and I, and that's worth noting and numbering, in no particular order.

1. Angel and I do best in our relationship when it's Us vs. The World. Our first big project was moving to New Zealand after we got married, when we weren't the kind of people who did such things - small town, midwestern, conservative, of modest means. Success in that big project made us feel like we could take on anything. We kind of got away from it when we moved to Seattle though, and started to work on our own projects - Angel in nursing and me in church work. This year, getting in shape and now training for a marathon has brought that back. We need a big project to do together that seems unrealistic at first. My career transition into healthcare falls into that category as well. Us vs. the world.

2. One of the biggest things I've struggled with in quitting the church and changing career tracks has been a sense of inconsequentiality. In the church world, I had a place and a feeling of importance and social standing, and I felt like I was headed towards more of that. Being a small time minister is kind of like being a celebrity to a very small number of people - most people don't care about you, but 6 - 7 people think you're awesome. Switching out of that, I have a feeling of having to remake a name for myself, and I'm not really in a field anymore that lends itself to a sense of celebrity.

3. Along similar lines, in transitioning out of ministry I've realized that even though I've often ended up in leadership positions, I don't really like the stress and expectations that come along with being the dude in charge. I think I do best when I feel like an expert and a leader, but maybe not the expert and the leader. It burns me out. I can't handle more than one such position at a time (and I currently still have two left over that I'm going to have to sort out going into the new year).

4. Along similar similar lines, when I spend most of my time studying and doing housework, as I've done during the last six months or so, I get frustrated because I don't feel like I'm doing anything consequential. I don't care about power or being in charge, but I want to do things that people care about, and I want to feel like I'm leaving something positive and concrete behind. I need to free up some time to nurture that by clearing out some of the things that drain me in life.

5. Life's better when you commit to an exercise routine, eat well, and keep yourself in shape. You feel better about yourself, you have more energy to get things done, people say nice things to you, you sleep better, your mental health issues are better regulated, you can post annoying things about how far you ran on Facebook, you don't get winded going up stairs, and you're more confident. Plus when you're in shape you want to maintain it and push yourself rather than letting yourself drift into a puddle of fat, booze and lethargy. Exercise starts to feel good after about a month, rather than feeling like a drag and a chore. It's well worth it.

6. I love/believe in/am continuously interested by religion, but it doesn't work for me unless it's tied to my worldview, culture, and identity. Evangelicalism was my first love. When my worldview evolved and changed and I became an Anglican in New Zealand, it worked because I had a sense that my beliefs lined up with the church's, and I had a sense that NZ Anglicans were people that I could be family with. When I moved back to the US, the Episcopal Church worked from a worldview perspective - probably even more than the NZ Church. But somehow the culture of the place never clicked, and as a whole I didn't feel like Episcopalians were my people somehow. Now, 6 months removed from church attendance, I don't know that I'll find an organized religious expression that works. Still, I feel like religion is a quite human thing, and is something I personally am wired for.

7. Along those lines, you really should read "The Faith Instinct" by Nicholas Wade. He talks about religion as a biological and natural phenomenon, but not in a dismissive way like those other jerk scientists like Dawkins - he's religion-positive, really. Personally, any future hope I have for religion lies in this kind of approach - scientific ideas affirming the value of structured music and community and ritual and faith. It seems like it should be possible to build on what's good in religion and start to get rid of the less helpful and truthful and beautiful aspects. I don't really want to be the one to try to sort out all of the details on that one.

8. Everyone's a little bit crazy. Working in mental health, I grow more and more convinced that we've all got at least a little bit of the propensity towards crazy. Whether it's nature or nurture that makes it come out in some more than others, I'm not sure. My kind of crazy, I think, is a mild propensity towards depression that stress brings out, and that exercise and relationships really seem to help with. Also, Ron Artest may jump into the crowd and punch fans every once in awhile, but he is also awesome and quite the unlikely hero for being open about his own struggles with mental illness and efforts to raise awareness. One of my new favorite athletes this year.

9. My Top 10 list only has 8 things on it.

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