Ask Richard: Help! I Worry I


For Humanist Network News
Dec. 15, 2010

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Dear Richard,

I have been seeking advice for a problem from several sources lately, and I would love your advice. I am struggling with a problem I have not heard spoken of directly. I would like to think that it falls under the category of “spiritual withdrawals” because otherwise I’m left to think much more disturbing things.

When I was a Christian I would have these moments of emotional rapture from time to time; moments that some would term inspirational or spiritual. They would come to me at particularly beautiful times of my life, such as a night spent alone stargazing, or the moment at which I reached the peak of a mountain trail, or when I enjoyed the crescendo of a favorite instrumental piece of music.

These moments were singular, so intense and moving that life after them would seem quite literally pale in comparison. They would lead me to spiritual insight and result in longing for something that I did not quite understand. Are you seeing how easy it was for me to attribute these feelings to the supernatural? A favorite author of mine at the time was C.S. Lewis, and his writings only further solidified my idea that these moments were messages from a god leading me to stay true to the path. That if I was true, then I might experience the fullness of these hints of joy one day when I reached eternal salvation in heaven. It was a beautiful way to view it for me.

Then, I moved away from home and learned about the world outside of the country enclave of evangelicals that I was raised in. Many factors caused me to renounce Christianity, then declare myself agnostic, and finally assert myself as atheist. I handled a lot of emotional issues from letting go of a belief structure I was conditioned into, and have let go of most of them. They are troubles that come every once in a while and are soon recognized for what they are, remnants of a past I have no reason to be tied to any more.

Only I still experience the moments of emotional intensity that I used to when I was Christian. I am struck by them suddenly and painfully, like a punch to the gut to remind me of the strong emotional ties I once had to my religion. Though they are intense, they do not make me seek belief again, they just drive me somewhat crazy.

I want to know if other people have these problems, particularly de-converts. If they are common, then maybe I’m just still dealing with separation from my former beliefs. But if these now painful moments are not something other people deal with as well, am I quite literally going insane? If this is a common thing to go through, what cause would you attribute it to? And do you have any suggestions for putting these emotions into a healthy perspective?


Dear Haunted,

Recently, I was visiting the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. While wandering through the galleries, I came around a corner, and a painting reached out, grabbed me by the neck and pulled me into it.

I was there, part of it. The delicious brush of the wind, the invigorating splash of the droplets on my face, the smell of the salt, the surge of the boat, the sunlight sparkling off the swells. It was real, intense and completely engrossing. Unaware of time passing, I was transfixed for several minutes, far longer than I usually spend looking at any work of art. Gradually I “came out of it,” and was back in the gallery. I noticed a label on the wall next to the painting. Eagerly I came up to read it, hoping that the label would add even more beauty, excitement and meaning to the experience I’d just had, something poetic and lyrical to really cinch the whole thing into a wonderful package of beauty, thrill and importance. The label said,

”Breezing Up” 1873-1876, Winslow Homer, 1836-1910

“Breezing Up”? That’s it? Nothing more? No words of inspiring wisdom and beauty to enshrine it with a meaning, add to its significance, gild and bejewel it with profound connotation? Nope.

Any other day, any other mood, any other circumstance, after lunch instead of before, and I might not have had that extraordinary experience looking at that same painting. I had studied it in school, and the effect of its photo in my art history textbook was “Meh, it’s okay, I guess.” That’s the way it is when you see the original of a masterpiece. Not always, but on rare occasions, if everything is exactly in place, it reaches out and grabs you.

The point of my story is twofold. Firstly, just about everybody has sudden, spontaneous and powerful experiences like those you described. They are not usually frequent in our lives, but they are common to human beings. Some people have them more often than others, some more vividly than others, but I’m sure that most people reading your letter will recognize what you’re talking about from their own experiences. Watching the clouds drift by on a perfect day, cresting a hill to see a Shangri-La valley, looking at my baby daughter, and seeing her really looking back me for the first time, unexpectedly inhaling the scent of pine as sweet as if it’s both my first and my last breath. Somehow they have a brief ultra-Technicolor reality to them, then things quiet down, back to the familiar and more workable level of the photo of the painting in the textbook. “Pale in comparison,” as you say. But that’s okay. If things were constantly that intense, I’d have to be taken care of in a mental hospital.

The second point is that the label is superfluous. We want to add a meaning, a purpose, a point, a message to these experiences, to frame them in a context, as if to capture them in our cameras and keep them with us, because their physical, sensual experience is so fleeting. So we draw upon whatever system of thinking we have handy at the time to enclose it, explain it categorize it, record it, annotate it, interpret it, augment it. If you’re a Christian at the time, you might attribute it to the Holy Spirit moving through you. If you’re a Buddhist, you might characterize it as a glimpse of enlightenment. Whatever your current interest, religious or secular, there’s a frame and a label that you can put around the painting.

But those are all contrivances. They are all unnecessary add-ons. The experience needs no “meaning” outside of itself. The painting is the painting. The thrill at the mountain pass is the thrill at the mountain pass. The ecstasy of the perfect symphony is just that, nothing more, and certainly nothing as artificial and contrived as the “significance” we want to stick on it. They don’t need any of that stuff, and neither do we.

I call these Peak/Peek/Pique experiences. “Peak” because they seem to be the apex of our joy, or ecstasy, or aliveness. “Peek” because we fancy that they are a glimpse into a hidden super reality behind the screen of reality we normally see. “Pique” because they arouse our interest or curiosity about whatever significance we invent for them. I think it is a mistake to treat them these ways. We can spend our lives chasing after them and their imagined value, like prospectors who die in the desert searching in vain for the Lost Dutchman Mine. Just let them be what they are, remarkable moments. No point or explanation is required.

Haunted, the good news is that you are still having these remarkable moments. That confirms that they are not dependent on, nor are they brought to you by your former religion. They are a purely human experience. Consider them a nice perk of being an intelligent, sensitive and perceptive person — with, have no fear, a perfectly sane and healthy mind.

I think your assessment is correct: The pang of sadness you feel is the grief and nostalgia for the pleasant things you remember associated with your earlier years when your religion gave you a sense of belonging, answered your questions (at least superficially), and gave these special moments a happy and reassuring interpretation. I’m glad that you’re seeking advice from several sources. Talking about it and finding others who understand can be very healing.

The mourning period for some people who have left the religion of their childhood can be quite protracted, and like any kind of grief, it comes in gradually diminishing waves. Sudden spikes can be triggered by specific things, and these experiences seem to be a trigger for you, but you can gradually reduce the grief reaction.

Try to simply accept the whole thing, both the beauty contained within the rapturous moment itself, and the twinge of sadness that is currently your reflex. Paradoxically, letting it all flow through your awareness unhindered, rather than grasping at the pleasant part and fighting the unpleasant part, over time you will probably begin to have less of that grief reflex. You’ll be able to enjoy the lovely moments in a direct, absolute way, just as they are and just for themselves.

Eventually, if you feel the need for a comment to yourself after one of these moments passes, perhaps you’ll say something like “Wow. That was nice. It’s good to be alive.”



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade’s column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.