27 July 2016

How to Leave the Jehovah's Witnesses, No. 1: Build a New Social Network

Readers may already know that I used to be a Jehovah's Witness. I wasn't born into the religion, but I was raised in it, as my parents converted when I was quite young. So this was the religion I knew from the very beginning, more or less. I spent about two decades associating with the Witnesses, until I decided to leave in 2008. I faded. And I am writing a whole series of articles in this blog giving details on how to leave, so that people who might be reading this blog will get the courage to get up and leave as well. The Jehovah's Witnesses is a high-control religion, and I know how hard it is to do the jump. I will give details and pointers on how to exit the religion, on every aspect of it. But for now, let me talk about how to plan it.

I am assuming that you already independently decided that you would leave. I have my own reasons why I left, but everyone has their own circumstances, and I am not in the business of forcing someone to leave (the same reason why the Witnesses shouldn't be forcing anyone to join, or remain - they say they don't, but seriously, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary, but that's for a different post). If you are on the fence, and is sort of undecided, then don't read this article until you have decided that you definitely want to leave. There are pros and cons to the issue, and I think I wouldn't be able to give a biased account given my background, which I have already given in other venues.

Looking back, I had it easy. I found it relatively easy to leave the Witnesses because I didn't have a single community where I revolved in. My father was a diplomat, and we kept moving overseas after staying in one place for a few years. So uprooting myself and going somewhere else wasn't a hard thing for me to do. And the fact that I moved to Buffalo by myself to pursue graduate school was also a welcome coincidence, as not only did I move again, but I was also alone, without the ever-prying eyes of the Witness relatives that I had. So even though I associated myself with a local congregation in Buffalo, I found that relatively easy to let go of, because I was more or less used to that idea.

Most people who would want to leave, however, are not in my position. Rather, for the most part, the Witnesses are the only social network they know. The Witnesses discourage association with "worldly" people, which is the term they use for people who are not Witnesses. So if you're born and raised as a Witness, then that's the only world you know. And since the Witnesses shun everyone who leave, then in effect, they are stripping everyone who leaves of their social network.

I can honestly say that it sucks, and in my opinion, this is the biggest hurdle. But there are ways to make the impact less, and that takes good planning.

To be honest, one of the best ways to minimize the impact of shunning is moving away. This is perhaps especially true when you live in a small city, and everyone knows everyone else. So I support the idea of taking the plunge and moving away, finding a new job in a different city, getting a change of scenery. If you move away and start afresh, the people who will want to shun you aren't going to be there. Everyone in the new community will start from scratch and have equal chances of getting to know you.

Now I should say that the world out there is not as bad as you might think. See, being a Witness has some perks. You get instant "friends" for example. If you move to a new city, and find the local Witness congregation, and introduce yourself to them as a Witness, then you gain immediate instant friends. The world doesn't work like that. In the world outside the Witnesses, there are good people and bad people. There are people from all slices of the spectrum. But most importantly, there are people who are willing to get to know you and be friends with you because of who you are, not because of what you claim to believe in. It is thus important for you to figure out who you really are, because for the most part, most Witnesses are trained to obey what the Watchtower says, and therefore they lose their originality, and in the process, lose their personality. But more of that in a future article. Stay tuned for that.

Anyway, let's say moving away is not an option. The second best thing is to broaden your social network. Start making friends outside the congregation. Start chatting with your co-workers, your classmates, your neighbors. Just because they are not Witnesses doesn't mean they are bad people. I cannot stop emphasizing the importance of this. You need a back-up social network, a new set of friends, real friends, that you can fall back on. Because the moment you announce that you don't want to remain being a Witness, then those Witness "friends" you think you have, all of those folks will suddenly disappear, even your Witness family members. You need to replace them. You need to replace your set of Witness friends and family with real friends and family who will stick with you no matter what. And in order for that to happen, you need to do some major rethinking on how the non-Witness worldly people work. Not all of them are evil as the Watchtower would like to claim.

So if you cannot move, then be pro-active and join activities outside of the congregation. There are plenty of things to do and other opportunities that would make you meet non-Witness people. There's Yelp, Meetup, Facebook groups, cooking classes, numerous other activities that would allow you to meet other people and make friends. Make new friends, because you will need them when your Witness friends start shunning you.

But before you can make new friends outside of the Kingdom Hall, you first have to figure out who you really are. There is a soul-searching process you need to do, because after all, this will be the personality that you have to present to potential new friends. As I tell people, I came out of two closets: a religious one, and only after I came out of the religious closet, was I able to come out of the sexual closet. The point is, at some point in time, if you decide to leave, you will have to decide for yourself what you like and what you don't like. Jesus (or more accurately, the Watchtower Governing Body) won't be making these decisions for you now. I remember that the Witnesses love to mention this analogy, say when deciding whether to watch a movie or not. Would you be comfortable inviting Jesus into your living room and watching this movie with him? If you want to leave, you need to stop thinking like that. I'll write more details about how to do that in the next issue of this series, so stay tuned.

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