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Jan 25 2012

The Jehovah’s Witness In The Rain

Vancouver is a wet place. Wet and gray. And often cold. And dark. And full of owlbears.

Except the owlbears are made up.

Or are they?

In my neighbourhood, there’s a very elderly woman who stands at a corner attempting to distribute Watchtower magazines and other Jehovah’s Witness literature to the passers-by. My neighbourhood is largely Chinese and Filipino, and predominantly Buddhist and Catholic as a result, so she is generally ignored.

Over the past couple months, I’ve begun to develop a weird little internal conflict in regards to this woman, triggered mostly by seeing her in the rain on cold and windy days. This occured again this weekend, on a particularly shit day where it was stings-your-fingers cold and there were just enough piles of slush, ice and melting snow strewn about to suck all the colour out of the landscape. I don’t know about you, but generally seeing a frail old lady standing in the cold and wet and being ignored by those around her definitely hits something in my heart.

The first time this happened it triggered a strange little ethical conflict. I found myself in the very uncomfortable position of shouting down my own instincts towards compassion. Something like…

Natalie’s Empathy: “She looks so sad and lonely, and she must be freezing. This is tragic. She’s old, this isn’t safe, she could catch pneumonia. And she’s suffering like this simply because she’s trying to offer what she perceives as salvation and help to those she perceives as in need. It may be misguided and misplaced compassion, but it’s compassion nonetheless”

Natalie’s Atheism and Anger: “Snap out of it, woman! She literally believes that while she ascends to eternal paradise, you deserve to be consigned to oblivion simply for being who you are. She sees you as a lesser being, an immoral sinner, one of those who should be begging her lord for forgiveness simply because of the ‘sinful’ nature of your identity and body. The salvation she offers would certainly demand you detransition and surrender yourself to a miserable, unfulfilled half-existence. Beliefs like hers are a huge part of what has made your life so difficult, have helped make it such that you risk your life every time you go out after dark or go to a bar or whatever, and that have convinced other Canadians to vote against your basic human rights time and time again. It’s something far more monstrous than misplaced compassion. It’s arrogance, judgment and hatred.”

… and then after that whole little process was over I felt this additional level of anger. I was angry that I had been put in the position of having to pit those sides of myself against one another. My compassion and empathy are things that I value, that are amongst of the parts of who I am that I’d most hate to sacrifice, and under most circumstances they cooperate just fine with my atheism and my politics. Fuck that lady for putting me in such an awful situation, and preying upon my emotions and basic human decency to try to get me to forgive her horrible belief system and attempts to spread it to everyone else!

Except… no. Not really. That’s a horrible thing for me to think. There was something very important I was missing.

The problem was not that I was being too empathetic, such that I missed the harmful aspect of what she was doing. The problem was I was not being empathetic enough. I was holding her purely accountable for those beliefs, and not considering how they weren’t quite a product of herself, or something she had simply chosen to proselytize. It was not a simple case of her opting to stand out there in the rain, or deciding I’m a sinner of lesser morals. Her church, her belief system, had placed her there, and had taught her that this was her only path to salvation. She was exactly as much a victim of the belief as anyone else. And was almost certainly more a victim of it than I… at least far more directly. After all, while she may threaten me with being shunned by an imaginary God, her beliefs had led her to stand there in the very real rain and very real cold and very real wind.

Beliefs and religions can be kind of like organisms in some ways. New ones pop up in human consciousness all the time. Some of them turn out to be particularly robust: they’re appealing and find new converts easily, they offer lots of psychological rewards for belief, and lots of psychological costs for rejection, and offer a little something for everyone. These ideas end up spreading and surviving while other ones die out. Also, little variations and tweaks appear in a belief or religion or ideology, and the variations that are better suited to survival and propagation spread while the weaker variations gradually vanish from the mainstream version of that religion, belief or ideology. Over time it evolves to be pretty much perfectly suited to engraining itself in a human mind and sticking there.

Christianity has had thousands of years to so evolve. And the Jehovah’s Witness strain ended up latched onto this women. It offers her a great deal… community, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, love, a moral center, a sense of purpose, and many many other things. What is a little rain compared to that? She’s cold and wet now, sure, and endangering her health, but she’s doing the work of God, and will have eternal bliss at His side. When looked at in this light, how can we regard this as really having been such a simple choice? That she’s putting herself there? Even when viewed as a choice, would anyone who genuinely believes have chosen differently?

It’s the beliefs that have put her in the rain. What’s more, it’s not her who has caused me any harm. It’s the beliefs that endanger my life. It’s the beliefs that cause people like her to regard me as sinful and less, as abhorent and immoral. It’s the beliefs that deny me my rights and demonize and ridicule me in the eyes of my culture. It’s the beliefs that have harmed both of us. She’s not my adversary. She’s just someone else needlessly suffering because our culture is awash in such systems of belief and thought.

Of course, if I opt to try to convert her, if I start offering the same unasked-for “help” and “salvation” and proselytizing my “superior” viewpoints, I’ve begun to allow myself to engage in the very same systems of thought. At least the same systems of practice, anyway. Insisting to confer help upon those who haven’t asked for or chosen it, to people you regard as incapable of making the right choices for themselves, has been the justification for too many atrocities to name.

But next time I see her, I can invite her in for tea. It’s unlikely I’d ever be able to convert her to atheism anyway, but I can offer her someplace warm for an hour or two. I can offer her some company. And I can demonstrate that forgiveness, empathy, compassion and warmth can exist in this world, and amongst real people, rather than only in an imaginary hereafter.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Cor (formerly evil)

    Take it from an ex-JW: If she’s as serious as she seems, she won’t want your demonic tea. Once you make it clear you aren’t open to conversion you’ve sided with Satan.

    1. 1.1
      Danny Haszard

      The Watchtower Society corpoartion is pure sleaze for exploiting the elderly (both sets of my own Haszard grandparents)and on the other end…
      send out under age minor children to peddle their scam bogus gospel.Danny Haszard

  2. 2
    David Hart

    “I can demonstrate that forgiveness, empathy, compassion and warmth can exist in this world, and amongst real people”

    … and there’s only so much empathy etc coming from a transperson that a JW can take before she’ll start to wonder if they’re perhaps not such demonic perverts as her church tells her.

    Right?

    Worth a go anyway.

  3. 3
    steve oberski

    In my neck of the woods the JWs usually arrive on your doorstep and quite often with a mentally disabled child in tow. This has happened often enough that I can’t attribute it to chance.

    I once asked one of them what the deal was with the retarded child was and other than demonstrating that this question is an effective way of getting them to leave immediately got no satisfaction.

    While I can’t imagine inviting one of them into my home (in their role as a proselytizing JW that is, not as a human being) I could imagine inviting that old women to the local Tim Hortons.

    My own suspicion is that the business of standing in the cold and rain and the disabled child in tow are an attempt to subvert our very human feelings of empathy and give the JW a physiological advantage, I mean who would want to injure that poor cold woman’s feelings or subject that child to a perhaps heated exchange of ideas on the doorstep.

  4. 4
    Jeremy Shaffer

    For almost a year now, starting a month or two before Harold Camping’s May 22nd “End of the World” prediction, there has been someone standing on the side of a nearby highway holding a giant “Repent Now” sign. It’s always in the early morning so I only see them as I am driving to work but they are out there rain or shine and the weather can be bitter cold or sweltering. Also, the stretch of highway I see them on is not what one could describe as safe either. Regardless, he or she is always out there, bundled in heavy clothing, ball cap with their eyes just peeking out between the bill of their cap and the top of the sign.

    Everytime I see them I am conflicted between just laughing at them and being angry that they have adopted a belief system that, for lack of a better term, requires they stand on the side of the road to do this while possibly risking life and limb. I have to wonder if they have anything else in their life. Then I have to wonder what, if anything, they might have thrown away for the belief that leads to them standing on the side of the highway holding a giant “Repent Now” sign.

    1. 4.1
      sambarge

      I would just want to stand behind them with a sign that reads: Or later?

  5. 5
    hanchman

    Well said, and thanks. I’ve had this very same conversation (empathy and compassion vs yea, she’s brought it on herself and her positions are vile, so why should I care) with myself many times and never before have I been able to sort it out like you have. I think being a good example and showing that empathy and compassion don’t necessarily need to be tied to a religion is the best way to live and proselytize without having to ever say a word. Thanks again.

  6. 6
    Christianne

    This is a case of hate the belief, love the believer, I guess. I like to think I’d invite her in with a “Come in and have some tea before you catch your death of cold,” but the last time I had a conversation with the missionaries that patrol my neighborhood (very occasionally, fortunately), the first thing out of their mouths was a harangue about my sure damnation. They don’t make it easy.

  7. 7
    Sivi

    This articulates a lot of the thoughts I’ve had rolling around in the last year or two regarding how activist-minded atheists (including myself) interact with believers.

    It’s nice to see other people are puzzling through these questions too. Striking some balance between holding people accountable for their beliefs, acknowledging how those beliefs are encultured, and how they affect society, individuals, believers, non-believers… it’s complicated.

    Not sure if I’d invite her in. It could be she’s a true believer, and I know if I felt strongly enough about something I’d be willing to endure some hardship for it.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses, though. I know they’re pretty patriarchal, and I always feel uncomfortable seeing them holding newsletters out in transit stations, since they’re always women, usually black, and usually older. It does make me wonder about the encultured part and why they’re the ones doing that kind of work.

    1. 7.1
      Enkidum

      I’m guessing the neighbourhoods you take transit in are predominantly black? Jehovah’s Witnesses are actually pretty diverse (racially, not in terms of beliefs, obviously), and tend to do their fishing near their own homes, so far as I know.

      1. Sivi

        Hm. I don’t have statistics on my specific part of the city, but it’s pretty white (though Montreal has, I think, a higher proportion of black people than much of Canada, due to immigration from former French colonies).

        Could just be a sample size thing.

  8. 8
    ashleybone

    I find it very easy to get angry or enraged towards theists and often very difficult to even consider exercising some compassion. Thank you for a vivid and moving reminder.

  9. 9
    Beth

    Nicely done! I’ll look forward to your posts.

  10. 10
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    The problem is that there is no way to invite her in without inviting her beliefs into your home. If she’s compelled to proselytize to indifferent strangers in bone-chilling weather, I can’t imagine her holding back from proselytizing in the warm over a cup of tea to a stranger who has shown compassion.

  11. 11
    felicis

    Very nice – I do much the same thing now. On the occasions that a Jehova’s Witness comes to my door (or a Mormon, though that hasn’t yet happened – or anyone, really), I am very happy to invite them in (if I have the time) and actually engage with them. I try to take care not to belittle them, but rather to shift the topic to things actually happening in the world today rather than how to prepare for the ‘hereafter’. Not actively trying to change their mind, but as you said, “…I can offer her someplace warm for an hour or two. I can offer her some company. And I can demonstrate that forgiveness, empathy, compassion and warmth can exist in this world, and amongst real people…” whether the people share her beliefs or not.

    (BTW – from Portland, OR – not quite as rainy, but still damp-ish).

  12. 12
    Besomyka

    Very interesting post, Natalie. It strikes me that I’ve gone through a similar line of thought with regards to feminism and patriarchy so there’s probably some more abstract truth at work.

    I’ll need to think on it quite a bit more, but right now I’m thinking that it has to so with beliefs and assumptions that are contrary to reality.

    When people assume a woman’s place is in the home rearing children and a man’s place is in the work force as a provider, both men and women are harmed (in disproportional ways for sure – being the bread winner bestows tremendous power). The reality is that some men do want to be the home caretaker, and many women want to work. That reality clashes with the false beliefs and misery results.

    It’s hard to blame someone that falls into the patriarchy mindset. It’s all around, and frequently they don’t even realize where the ideas come from. It just seems ‘right’. They have this misguided idea in their heads and it’s not necessarily their fault.

    I still hate it, though, and there’s a limit to my compassion for wrongheadedness.

    Same pattern that you describe here; the misguided notion affects both of you. Maybe her, in that moment, more harshly but I suspect that people like us, and you specifically living there, are harmed more in the long term due to their political influence and the justification it gives to less compassionately minded people to act out.

  13. 13
    Landon

    “Hate the belief, love the believer.” Love it.

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    Invite her in, let her do her spiel, and make sure that you do a very poor job of disguising how laughable you find her condemnation. True Believers hate it when you laugh at their ideas, especially if you’re being otherwise nice while you’re doing it. I also like the phrase “that’s cute” a LOT.

    1. 14.1
      Aliasalpha

      I find that “How quaint” works equally well in most situations where you’d condescendingly use “that’s cute”. Then again I am a patronising bastard at the best of times…

  15. 15
    Quietmarc

    Yeah, I came to the conclusion that “take her to Timmies and get her a coffee,” (or bring a coffee/tea/hot beverage to her) is probably the compassionate option…though I wouldn’t do that personally, because I have social anxiety and talking to strangers is Something I Don’t Do. I don’t know if such an exchange of human kindness requires conversion anyway: take her for tea, talk about the weather (eh?), funny stories from the neighbourhood, etc.

    It might be a bust, and I don’t know if someone as devoted to their faith as she must be would ever “convert” anyway, but taking the time to show kindness could help to destroy the “sinners are awful” idea, changing it to “some sinners are kind of nice, when you get to know them,” which can provide dividends in the big picture.

  16. 16
    round guy

    I really appreciate this post. I work with a number of witnesses and it has taken me some time to lose my arrogance and understand what they get from their belief system (even though it is nonsense at the core).
    It doesn’t even matter that you have almost no chance of changing her belief system.
    Acting like a decent, compassionate human being is an end unto itself.

  17. 17
    Ace of Sevens

    Thank you. Were you a cradle atheist or raised religious? A lot of us are related to such people and it can be tricky to navigate how to deal with them.

    1. 17.1
      Natalie Reed

      I was raised Anglican, but not strongly and I left the church when I was 12-ish. It didn’t end up being all that big a deal.

  18. 18
    Aliasalpha

    Hmm, showing compassion to those that very likely hate you, curiously christian idea. Shame its not a common christian practise…

    It does make me realise I’ve never seen an old door to door godbotherer. Around my way we only ever get the home delivery armageddon insurance peddlers and they’re always mid to late 20s

    As a random aside, I hate my brain, the first reaction it had to he title of your post was to mentally rewrite macarthur park (someone left the witness in the rain I don’t think that I can take it ’cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe agaaaaaain), its going to take hours of metal to get that bloody song out of my head now

    1. 18.1
      Natalie Reed

      Now it’s in my head too. You’re a horrible, horrible person. :P

      1. Aliasalpha

        Aha! Revenge is mine!

        Several hours of metal did get it out of my head but then I read the post title again… Back to arch enemy & marvelling at how awesome angela gossow is.

        1. Mr.Kosta

          @Aliasalpha:

          This is a bit (well, a lot, really) off topic, but this reminds me I’ve seen Arch Enemy live. Good times.

          And back on topic, yeah, I’d probably let the old lady in if I was in the same situation. But considering the Venom poster I have in my living room…

  19. 19
    setar, too lazy to log in on his blackberry

    I have seen an elderly man in a scooter at Surrey Central station multiple times. On one particularly rainy day, I saw him there with a a very large stack of Watchtowers.

    I think emotional manipulation is a factor, because the first thing I thought that day was “that stack is a third as high as his scooter, he had to have help bringing it”.

    But some of them are just dedicated. While I was in White Rock one tried to offer me tracts when I had my noise canceling headphones on and couldn’t hear her -at all-.

    I’ve had them at my house once, but my roommate gets the knock because he hasbthe front door. The Mormon temple is a scant two blocks away from me (you can almost see it from my front door) too, but no visits from then yet.

  20. 20
    Brad

    I’d probably invite her in, saying I noticed she was out here and cold, and thought she might like to take a break. When the subject of religion comes up (of course), I would say I would prefer not to tell her my own beliefs, but was curious to hear what she had to say about hers, since she clearly felt so strongly about it.
    Discussion would ensue, and I could ask questions, without really having to say anything about my non-belief. Then at some point might mention all the different religions that were in the main in the neighborhood, and ask her opinion of those
    . And then, maybe, at some point ask her what she thought that the person without any religion at all was the one who brought her in.
    Could be interesting….

  21. 21
    MizzMazz

    I meant to be doing other things, but have spent the last 2+ hours here. Now I will be spending even more time at FTB. Natalie, you are a wonderful addition, and I can’t wait to read more.

  22. 22
    hall-of-rage

    After reading the comments, I have two cents: I’m uneasy with any mindset that would allow me to assume that a person is emotionally manipulating me, without actually interacting with them. Or that a person would spew hate at me, before I talk to them; any pattern that withdraws compassion when it is prompted. Even if you /know/ that’s how the Jehovah’s Witness system works, what bothers me is the certainty in pre-judgment, especially a feeling of “I’m angry because they’re /trying/ to make me feel bad”. I don’t think it matters how you get to that thought and to what degree, it demands a reality check. In fact reflecting on this, I’ve now just had a chilling insight/reminder about how something like “dehumanization” can work. Maybe I’m up too late.

    So I think it’s awesome you want to take her to tea. Maybe not in your house?

    And on the other hand doing something with the goal of proving that atheists have compassion…that’s maybe a good thing for the community, but as a personal goal it’s unlikely to give satisfaction.

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