I am a disappointment to my parents. They would strongly deny this and in fact often tell me how proud they are of what I’ve achieved, and who I am today. And I don’t doubt that they are proud of me in most regards and that they have the true love of a parent towards me – a love without condition or exception. I have been incredibly lucky in the parents that fate landed me with, and I am ever grateful that I had the benefit of a secure, comfortable childhood – a childhood during which I never doubted that my parents loved both me and each other. I preface my story this way as I do not want to sound ungrateful or begrudging towards what I regard as an incredibly loving upbringing.
But let me reiterate – I am a disappointment to my parents. Not in the obvious material sense, whereby my career choices have let them down, nor in a behavioural sense whereby my actions have caused them hurt. No, I have disappointed them in a much more subtle, spiritual way.
You see, my parents are Christians. And not just run-of-the-mill Sunday church attending Christians. No, mine have thrust themselves headlong into lives whereby their very careers are dominated by their beliefs – they are missionaries. Which is why I have lived in five countries in the space of 25 years, why I have never lived anywhere longer than five years, why I’m never sure what to answer when people ask me where I’m from (do they mean where I was born? where I live now? where I lived the longest? where I consider home?).
And me, I am an atheist at worst, an agnostic at best. I have two major arguments against believing in the same Judeo-Christian god in whom my parents place their whole livelihood: a) the more I read and think about it, there’s very little proof to substantiate the Bible’s claims b) even if there was, I’m not sure I could be reconciled with believing in a god who is genocidal, anti-women and homophobic.
So myself and my parents have polar-opposite views – which in itself is not exceptional, generations of offspring have disagreed with their parents and cast aside their values and beliefs. But the very thing that my parents and I disagree with causes much pain to us both. I feel hurt to my marrow that I cannot believe in what my parents have based their entire lives on – the jobs they do, the places they have moved to, the way they have raised their children. They are widely respected and loved by so many for sharing their god, and I, their firstborn daughter, have thrust him back in their faces. Even though they do not push or pressurise me towards their beliefs any more, how can they not be hurting? After all, do they not believe that their own child, their first baby, will be going to hell?
We were not always at odds. I grew up all through high school considering myself a Christian. I attended church, bible study, youth group, you name it. I watched my peers diverge into two groups – the ones who seemed genuinely spiritual, to be literally in touch with God; and another group who went through all the motions on a Sunday morning even after getting completely rat-arsed drunk the Saturday night before. I was jealous of the former group, and despised the hypocritical latter group. Everyone talked about ‘having a relationship with God’, ‘feeling his presence’, ‘hearing Him’ etc. I felt wholly inadequate as none of it felt real to me – however loudly I sang in church, however fervently I prayed, I felt absolutely nothing, nada, zip, nil. I cried many bitter tears, striving to be a good missionary kid, trying to connect with the god of my parents and failing absolutely.
In my first year of university, away from my parents and exposed to a whole host of new ideas and new people I shrugged off my former beliefs slowly but surely. My parents asked me fortnightly whether or not I had found a church to attend – by the end of my second year they had stopped asking altogether. They dealt with my snide remarks, drunken behaviour and my smoking habit on vacations back home with exceptionally good grace.
We argued about it over and over, tears being spilt on both sides. I repeatedly challenged them on the homophobia and patriarchy of the Bible – two of the main issues I have with their belief system. They shrug off the gay issue, and refer to the inherent sexism of the good book as simply the ‘natural order’ of things.
I remember being aghast when my mother crossly told me that she didn’t understand why I was so resentful of the way women were treated and referred to in the Bible (and indeed, in churches) when in the Islamic world women were often treated much worse! As if someone who is robbed should be thankful that they were not beaten too.
I have had to carve myself a completely different identity to that which was created for me – that of the godly missionary kid (MK for short, if you want to be hip about it), whose faith is bulletproof, who is chaste and sober, who marries young to a faithfilled person and raises another god fearing generation. Whose parents can be proud of her, whose parents can be happy for her.
The more time that passes the more sure I am that I will not and can not believe in the god whom my parents stake everything on. But I also recognise, more and more, that I cannot continually challenge them on their beliefs, on their way of life. They have made their choices, I have made mine. Just as their choices define their lives, so too do mine. And I have too much love and respect for them to attack the very core of who they are. We now attempt to navigate our relationship without running it aground on the ‘g’ word. There are plenty of things we can enjoy and do and talk about without it being referred to. But it is and always will be the elephant in the room, the continual disappointment in my parents’ hearts, the shadow of guilt in my thoughts.