Penn Jillette Took Pictures Up My Nose and Other Life-Defining Moments

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Penn Jillette (left), me (bottom center) and cohorts

About a month ago I got back from a road trip to Las Vegas, more than 60 hours in the car over the course of eight days and one of the greatest experiences of my life. While there, I had the pleasure of seeing Penn & Teller perform at the Rio Hotel and Casino, something I wholeheartedly recommend everyone try at least once. As is their custom, after the show they hung out in the lobby of the theater and took pictures with everyone willing to brave the crowds. As my friends and I waited for our turn, trying to come up with something coherent to say that would do justice to the ninety minutes of talent and hard work we had just witnessed, my husband suggested to me, “Why not tell them Bullshit! saved your life?”

This would not be an exaggeration, not really, not when you put it together with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Steven Hassan, and Christopher Hitchens, the BBC Two specials by Louis Theroux, and the various television shows by mentalist Darren Brown. Not to mention the efforts of my husband, tireless crusader for truth and justice, who never gave up on me even when I spouted crazy cult psychobabble like some kind of animatronic Jesus doll.

Bullshit!, of course, is Penn & Teller’s myth-debunking show on Showtime, which helps people think critically about everything from psychics to recycling. And it was just one blow in a series of well-calculated strokes that slowly chipped away my horribly blockaded mind.

My first reaction to my husband’s suggestion, and admittedly my first reaction to anything, was, “I can’t do that.” That’s what growing up in a high-control religious group does to you. It makes you feel like you have no control. It makes you glad you have no control, thankful someone else has figured it out for you. And that’s how I spent the first 27 years of my life, instantly skeptical of anything that presented me a choice more complicated than which knee-length skirt to pair with which high-cut sweater. Almost a year later, I’m still struggling with that.

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I left this blog for a while because I was frozen in fear of the choice I was presented: examine the greatest paradigm shift of my life by writing about it in something more public than a locked folder on my hard drive, or cower in fear of what might happen if the wrong people chanced upon anything negative I said about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religious group my parents raised me in. In typical fashion, I pushed it all away, abandoning the blog and my best outlet for self-reflection. Now, I think I’m ready to go ahead with it, and part of this is because of what I ended up saying to Penn Jillette after he took pictures up my nose.

I chickened out with Teller. We had the privilege of getting a picture with him first, and all of us were so tingly with proximity all we could manage were giggles. When we had our picture and scampered away, I said breathlessly, “I touched him. I touched the fringe of his garment and his power flowed out of him and into me.” The perfect balance of blasphemy and truth to send us over to the crowd gathered around Penn, because now I was going to do it. I was going to tell him that Bullshit! saved my life.

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Penn is a huge man, six and a half feet tall. His thumb is no less huge, and it planted itself square on the shutter button and took at least a dozen pictures of us, quite a few of them an inch away from my face. Giggling, jittery and euphoric, I looked Penn as close in the eye as I could and said, “I just want you to know, Bullshit! saved my life.”

There. I did it. Declared myself to one of my heroes. My work here was done.

“Oh, really?” he said. “How is that?”

Shit. Now what? In hindsight, my plan didn’t take into account that he might actually say something back. But this was Penn Jillette. Of course he was going to say something!

“It helped me get out of a cult,” I said, bold as heck now. “All of us. We were all in it.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said, with the saddest, most sincere voice I’d ever heard from him. This giant, this expert in deception and truth, was sorry for us!

“No, it’s fine!” I said. “I just wanted to say thank you!”

And we tore out of there as fast as we could, scrolling through the pictures he took, our laughter echoing back up the hallway. Did that really just happen?

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I guess it did. The more people I tell, the less ashamed I am. Not that I’m ashamed of learning how to think, how to examine my beliefs and hold them up to the same rigorous standards I expected of the people I used to try to convert as a proselytizing Christian minister, or even of being identified as an atheist. I guess I’ve been ashamed of what the people I used to be close to would say about me if they really knew the extent of my unbelief. Because, if they did, they would call me the worst kind of person, the kind who abandons god and all his “promises” in exchange for a life of arrogant hedonism. They’ll say I’ve become “mentally diseased,” and even though I know it’s a lie, I guess I thought that by keeping my mouth shut, I could preserve whatever memory of me they may have.

But now I realize that’s out of my control. What’s worse, it’s playing by their rules. I’ve played by those rules my entire life, and to tell you the truth, I’m sick of them. I have no loyalty to a religious organization, but by keeping silent about the truths I’ve learned and the harm it’s done to innocent people, I’m still in the game. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. I want to be proud of who I am and the progress I’ve made, and I want to help people who are in the same position I was only a year ago. I can’t do that by pretending I don’t have an opinion. So, if I have to use scary words like cult to convey the gravity of the situation, I will. In my experience, that word gets the point across just fine.

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So I suppose it’s time I made a confession. I was raised in a cult, but I’m doing better now. I’m tempted to say that I’m an atheist, goddammit, but I think I’ll just say I’m an atheist, life is beautiful, and leave it at that.

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Messages In YA Literature

I’m reading several books at the moment, and, as astute blog readers may be able to surmise, one of them is message-driven.

Well, maybe not message-driven. Maybe message-personified is a better description. As in, that’s the entire purpose of the book. A message personified by characters representing the polarized sides of an argument. And from the very beginning of the story, we’re clear on which side we’re supposed to be on. One side is loving and tolerant, while the other is hateful and irrational, immune to reason. Granted, I’m only halfway through the book (a side effect of reading too many at once!) but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where this thing is going.

I hesitate to elaborate on the details, because I respect the author and what he’s accomplished in his particular area, and many of his points hold some serious water. The sad thing, though, is that the real world isn’t so clear-cut.

One of the beauties of children’s lit is its ability to help young people grow beyond the concrete, black-and-white morality of childhood. The development of moral reasoning, as put forth by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, starts with rule-based justification, which deals heavily with obedience and punishment. Most young children adhere to this thought process (and no small number of adults). Adolescents and adults develop more nuanced shades of reasoning involving social pressures and expectations, until finally, the last level (which some people never reach) acknowledges that rules are useful but not absolutes, and that any rule violating universal human rights should be discarded.

This developmental theory explains not what is right and wrong (leave that up to the philosophers and theologians if you feel you can’t trust your own conscience) but how people justify what they believe is right or wrong. According to Kohlberg, moral development is an ongoing process, and it’s my opinion that literature and stories play a big part in that development–not by shoving messages down kids’ throats, but by giving them the tools to figure out their stance for themselves.

The stories we tell young children usually have definite morals because that’s what children understand. By showing them how to put themselves into other people’s shoes (called perspective taking), stories help kids develop their moral reasoning skills. Not everyone is the same as you. People feel different things. People think different things. We have to live with them anyway.

Beyond early childhood, though, kids are able to handle more complex thoughts. As they advance through school, (hopefully) learning critical thinking skills, their stories need to keep up with their expanding views of the world, and they need to better reflect how that world actually works. Kids are going to form some definite opinions about things (have you ever met a teenager?) but their experiences can’t simply be summed up the way their picture books used to it, with the good side clearly presented in opposition to the bad and the obvious consequences played out. The bully gets what’s coming to him, and the hero, who sticks up for the underdog, gets the girl, saves the school, and wins the respect of everyone. (As Oscar Wilde satirized in the words of his silly Miss Prism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Besides, any self-respecting teenager can spot a message a mile away, and there’s no quicker way to turn them off than by telling them what to think.

Now, as a thinking human being, I have some definite opinions on things. I tend to think about them a lot, and, as a writer, they tend to pop up in my stories. My recently completed manuscript, Walls, deals with some heavy issues, not the least of which is capital punishment. I have definite opinions on capital punishment. You can probably guess what they are by reading my story, but I tried very very hard not to turn my work of fiction into a polemic against the inequities of the American justice system. That’s no fun to read. Besides, it’s pointless. That would appeal to very few people–in fact, probably only to me. And while I write for myself first and foremost, I want to share my stories with other people, teenagers in particular. I know they think about things, and they come to every story with a preconceived set of notions concerning those things, and no matter how much I beat them over the head with my views, they’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. I’ll have better luck if I present the facts and let them form their own conclusions.

My aim as a storyteller isn’t to get people on my side of any particular issue. My aim is to illuminate that issue within the very specific context of these characters and how it relates to them. I don’t presume to know what’s right and wrong–I’m not even convinced those things can be defined by absolutes. Reading fiction isn’t about absolutes, it’s about people and what they do when confronted by those issues. How a character reacts to finding out her father is on Death Row (for instance) should not be presented as a Worst Case Scenario Handbook, what to do should you find yourself in such a situation. Literature with that purpose is very ineffective and, honestly, embarrassing. It puts me off as a reader, even if I happen to agree with what the author’s saying. 

Now, the passions of an author can be a fine engine for getting a story written. You’re supposed to attack what terrifies you, after all, face the white-hot center of your fear, and find the universal truths buried within. However, once the story lands in the hands of a reader, it’s not about the author anymore. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, especially when you really care about what you’re writing.

What’s helped me to avoid the tendency to send messages can be boiled down to that old writing adage: everyone’s the hero of their own story. In the words of Tom Ripley, “You never meet anyone that thinks they’re a bad person.”

That bully, or critical parent, or judgmental teacher–whoever is represented by your antagonistic force–has just as much moral justification going on in their heads as your protagonists. Avoid turning your story into a polemic by searching for those antagonists’ redeeming qualities. What makes them worthwhile people? Very few humans are incapable of being identified with (even the most morally reprehensible had mothers at one point), and a story that presents people that way will come off flat and one-sided.

Even if your goal is to present an argument–go ahead, I’m not stopping you–please, make your characters real. Present your argument through the eyes of the characters, fully realized, possessing qualities both good and bad. Make your readers work to find the answers, don’t just hand them to them in black and white. The world just doesn’t work that way. We want kids to learn to think, not nod and agree with every well-formed argument.

Just some thoughts. Back to writing!

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So This Is What It Feels Like

Alright, I’m coming clean. It’s been almost two weeks since I finished my manuscript.

The moment I finally typed “The End” at the bottom of chapter 23, rounding out 105k words of my first ever completed novel, I sat back and tried to analyze what I was feeling.

Truth is, though, I didn’t feel a whole lot of anything. What I’d done was certainly an accomplishment–not very many people finish a novel, let alone one that’s been plaguing them since 2007, each passing year stacking the odds against ever seeing anything come of it. But it didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Like so many of life’s milestones, things don’t instantly change the moment you achieve something you want. No magical switch was flipped, clowns didn’t appear out of nowhere with explosions of fanfare and confetti. I simply sat at my desk and watched the cursor blink at the end of line.

That’s what it was, I realized: the end of the line. And like any journey, it ended right as another one began. Except this time, as I set about revising the thing and trying to get it published, I have way more going for me. I have a newly-born self-confidence–not just from actually finishing something, but from slowly coming around to a radically different worldview.

Up until a few months ago, everything I did, everything I wanted and every decision I made was tinged with negativity. It’s amazing what a little perspective can do to your sanity. I have been happier these past few months than I’ve ever been. Things are no longer scary. Things have promise, they have hope, and I know now that I can do it because I have done it: I have made something good. The momentum I’ve built over the past few months is carrying me into a future I very much want to be a part of.

Now my manuscript must age, like all good wine, whiskey, and Angus beef. A very good friend has already read the thing, assured me I’m not crazy, and shown me ways to make it better (proving again I’m crap at critiquing, because oh my goodness the way she puts things puts all my attempts at self-analysis to shame). I’m making notes and biding my time, and while I’m waiting for the right moment to dive back in, I’ve already started on the next one. My shiny new WIP gurgles and coos at a mere 4000 words, having existed in my head for less than a month–which is terrifying to me, considering all my other ideas existed for years or more before coming to (semi-) fruition.

My new idea takes several things I’ve experienced first-hand, adds something I’ve never experienced and never will, and synthesizes them into two brand new characters I’ve already fallen in love with. Someday, I hope you’ll love them too.

If my new WIP was a music video, this would be it, complete with hand-clapping:

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Shiver Me Timbers!

So this is what writing looks like. It looks like me, sitting at my desk, not working on this blog. Listening to the same songs over and over again, watching music videos on youtube (over and over again), racking up my wordcount and drinking massive amounts of good black tea. By the time I’m done with this novel (10k more? 15k?) I will have no more followers and pirate teeth.

This post has no picture because who wants to look at an unwashed, glassy-eyed, pirate-mouthed muppet?

Old Joe

(Okay I lied. Everyone wants to look at that.)

So sorry it appeared as if I had died. I assure you, I’m merely afflicted with the midnight disease and will soon return to the land of the free and the home of the sane. Hopefully with a finished novel.

Oh happy day.

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Book Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I’ve had a hard time explaining this book to my friends. About all that comes out coherently is, “It’s nothing like the movie.”

Okay, so they both have zombies. And yes, Israel builds a giant walled city and shuts itself in. And that old guy whose job it is to believe the unbelievable, in hopes of preventing another 1973 “Arab sneak attack”? He’s in the book. But that’s about it. No Brad Pitt, no miracle plane crash survivals, no deus ex machina immunity and sneaking around a zombie-infested CDC. By the end of the book all is not peachy keen. We don’t all get inoculated against the virus and are instantly saved. We have to fight for decades against an enemy that is more like us than appearances suggest.

What I try to convey is that, to my NPR-and-Daily-Show-fueled brain, this book accurately depicts what people in the future would say if a Zombie Apocalypse were to hit our planet as it currently stands. Without naming names it manages to perfectly reflect our world. Therefore, this book is less about zombies and more about geopolitics, economics, fear and survival, and deeds both selfish and selfless. It’s a whole bunch about the military, soldiers from every corner of the globe, and the myriad ways there are to kill the undead. (It’s a lot more complicated than you might think.) It’s activists and mystics and detached teenagers and feral children, refugees and pilots and drug companies capitalizing on our panic.

Told in the form of interviews (the United Nations interviewer, unnamed and almost entirely without character, formed the basis of the Brad Pitt character in the movie) that range from just a few pages to dozens, the book is able to cover a wide range of topics and locations from Colorado and Micronesia to China and Finland. Soldiers, politicians, mercenaries and filmmakers recount their experiences in the Zombie War, and some truly are affecting. One woman recounts, with the help of her doctors, her harrowing experience that left her orphaned and alone at a very young age. Another gives a touching reflection on the nature of monarchy and castles in Europe, and another, a rollicking 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-style adventure in a Chinese nuclear submarine. Many critics have pointed out that the voices of the many interviewees aren’t diverse enough, which may be a valid point, but I hardly noticed. Everything they recount is engaging and varied enough to overlook the fact they all sound like Max Brooks.

And about Mr. Brooks. I’d like to see his research notes, because oh my god this guy talks about everything. I felt smarter by the page.

So hopefully this little review has helped explain what this nifty little book is like. Because yes, while it’s nothing like the movie, it’s also so much more. I highly recommend it, whether you’re into zombies or not.

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That Part of the Book

I reached an important and stomach-churning milestone over the weekend, what Neil Gaiman’s agent affectionately refers to as “that part of the book.” Since August 4th I have written 50k words–a little over halfway by my estimates, although, if you take the word of the lovely folks at NaNoWriMo, enough to qualify as an entire book!

Even if all you NaNoWriMo participants haven’t reached this milestone yet, you probably know what I mean about stomach-churning. Every couple thousand words feels like I’m hitting “that part of the book.” Usually it’s after a big event, a major revelation, or anything else I’ve been building up to for a long time. I put a lot of effort into making these tentpoles just right, hit all the major points, end the chapter with a killer line, and. . . .

Fall flat on my face.

Truth is, after all the energy I put into these exciting parts, parts that come after, where characters react, can feel sort of anticlimactic. They tend to sit around thinking, feeling, and well. . . reacting. Pretty boring. If I don’t handle it right, it will be boring, and that means bye-bye readers.

Even more frightening, it’s these passages of reaction that put your skills as a writer and your understanding of the interior world of your character to the test. How characters react to big, life-changing events reveals them at their most vulnerable, before they’ve focused themselves and moved on to the next round of action. What they think and feel now supports what they do later. And if you, the writer, get this wrong, events further on down the line are going to feel flat.

I think that’s why a little over halfway through the book can be so crippling. Everything’s been set up. By now, we’re very aware of what the story problem is, and we should be actively involved in trying to fix it. Not all the pieces may be in place yet, but characters should be gathering strength, preparing themselves for the final push, the final crises, the final desperate acts. Things said and done now justify all those coming things, and messing up now puts them in jeopardy. Those moments are why you’re writing the book, after all. They are the great character-defining events that demonstrate change, the soul of any story. Storytelling is just a form of artistic chemistry, after all, and any deficiency on either side of the equation can result in disaster.

That’s a lot of pressure. And for me, that results in a lot of blockages.

Thankfully, we get do-overs. An infinite amount, or however many we need to get it right.

Go back and click on the link at the beginning of this post to read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful pep talk from a previous year of NaNo. I read it whenever I feel like giving up. Every writer feels like giving up, at one point or another. It happens to me every other chapter. The only solution is, as Neil says, to keep on keeping on. Put one word in front of another. It’s the only way to get it done.

Good luck all you NaNoWriMo participants and writers everywhere! Get something done.

(This song is good for whatever your challenge is, be it finishing a novel or finding your place in the universe.)

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“Doubt Truth to Be a Liar”

I’ve been in a funk lately. Here’s why.

Psychologists use the term “schema” to describe the result of collecting information, analyzing it, and creating a view of the world based on that analysis. A kind of rule book of how things are. These schemata play a part in every decision made, every judgment cast, and every new piece of information we take in for the rest of our lives. It’s a term closely tied to child development–in fact, it was introduced by Jean Piaget, the king of child development himself.

My job as a teacher requires me to observe children under two, record their actions, and ultimate try to guide them by manipulating the information they take in. I give them a bucket of water, they explore the physical properties, I supply the language necessary to categorize them, and then teach them how to clean up. They hit another child and steal his toy, I show them the child’s tears and explain that their actions resulted in someone else’s pain. Everything is a brave new world when you’re brand new to it. Schemata form by the moment. They’re dependent on the environment encountered and the child’s interaction with it. Childhood is, in effect, a 20-year-long experiment in brain development.

Here’s the thing about schemata. They can be very difficult to shake. Another term psychologists like to throw around is “cognitive dissonance.” This occurs when new information presents itself in contradiction to established schemata. The resulting dissonance can be so unpleasant that the individual will go to great lengths to reduce it while maintaining the fundamentals of the established schema, resulting in massively flawed rationalizations. That’s why certain worldviews, like racism, are so hard to dislodge from someone’s psyche.

Last week I endured a viewing of the excellent but brutal Twelve Years a Slave. From our modern, enlightened viewpoint, the white slaveholders in this movie are incomprehensible. Can they not see that their actions have no true basis, are damaging, are fundamentally wrong? We can see it, why can’t they? Our schemata are different. The majority of people in this society are not raised to view entire segments of humans as inferior based on skin color. Though discrimination of course still exists, in both racism and class discrimination, modern enlightened people are not taught that slavery is a god-given right to a select group to subjugate another. So we watch characters behave in intolerable ways and wonder, “How can they be so cruel?” It’s obvious to us.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years a Slave

The most interesting character, in my view, is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is the slave owner who buys main character Solomon Northrup right off the boat, putting him to work on his plantation in Louisiana. Ford quickly discerns the intellectual and artistic capabilities of Northrup and displays a certain amount of kindness toward both his physical and emotional well being, defending him against less compassionate overseers. However, when the time comes for him to make a choice that brings his entire worldview into question, he ultimately fails, and with apparent great inner turmoil. Rather than siding with an individual who had already proven his worth, he chooses to uphold society’s proscribed roles for both of them. You can see the conflict in Cumberbatch’s exquisite acting and in the details of the set dressing, as Ford guards his beloved slave with a shotgun and explains how he has no choice but to sell him to a cruel new master, Northrup’s bloodied head rests on a delicate lace pillow. Ford is so close to doing what he most likely knows in his heart is right, but societal pressures prevent him from overturning his deeply-entrenched schemata. In the end, Northrup is sold, and Ford no longer has to defend his actions to anyone.

All this is by way of illustration. My funk has nothing to do with racism, but it’s an apt analogy, because good people have fallen victim to such lies. Contrary to what people like to think, there were even good Nazis (I keep meaning to watch Schindler’s List). Good people can be taken by lies. They can believe them with every part of their being, and they will die for them. And that’s what scares me, because the people who get taken are much more normal and intelligent than you might think.

Needless to say I am going through a change. It’s been long in coming. Almost my entire life has been dedicated to a single purpose, and over the past seven years or so, in reflection I recognize myself trying to make sense of it. It’s not until your mid-twenties, after all, that your prefrontal cortex fully develops. This is the part of your brain responsible for “executive functions,” which, according to Wikipedia:

differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

Last week I turned 27. Instead of joining the 27 Club, I’m instead learning to think for myself. My schemata have proved to be based on logical fallacies and, in many cases, wishful thinking. It’s all good and well to teach children to obey their parents, but to obey unquestioningly? That’s insulting the intelligence of the child. A child can easily learn why it’s best not to play with fire by playing with it and getting burned. Parents try to avoid that by teaching children to keep their hands off. One method, involving instilling unquestioning obedience, usually results in children testing their parents’ command and playing with fire anyway. Others are more successful. Teaching children how to reason on matters, explaining the facts to them, and helping them form conclusions is more beneficial to the child. After all, the unquestioning child, instead of rebelling against the parent’s wishes, may grow up to fear fire, never learning to discriminate between safe and unsafe use and therefore miss out on the benefits it has to offer.

I am reaching the point in my life where I’m putting what I was taught to the test and discovering where it does not hold up. It is a long and exhausting process, full of disappointment. At times I feel betrayed, but mostly I feel free. Not necessarily free to do whatever I want, like the child who breaks away from mother in a toy store and runs wild, but free to not to be afraid of things that have terrified me my entire life. People are not bad; I do not have to be afraid of them. I can form friendships using good judgment that will benefit us both, unconditionally. I no longer have to turn people away because they don’t subscribe to a particular belief system. I’m free to form connections, share information, and experience love in a way I never could before. 

A little more about that information. It’s the free exchange of information that got me out of this funk. I am grateful to so many people who directly and indirectly were able to remove the scales from my eyes and help me to see reason. If you want more specific information, I encourage you to look at Steven Hassan’s BITE model of mind control. The organization I grew up in hits on all four categories in profound ways.

My goal here is not to write a diatribe against my former belief system. There were many positives to growing up as I did. Other people are working actively to expose the fallacies and are doing much better than I ever could. It is not in me to dwell on so much negativity, although I must admit my first reaction to finding out the truth was anger.

Besides, if I get too deep into the specifics of what’s happening to me, people who read this blog and who currently hold my previous beliefs can get me and my loved ones into serious trouble. I don’t want to cause trouble for my loved ones. I don’t want to force upon them an impossible choice, namely, choosing between me and their beliefs. For my part, I want us all to get along. I want us all to be able to form our own beliefs without fear of reprisal, criticism, or ostracism. If the wrong people gather enough evidence of my “change of heart,” I will be ostracized from the social group I have been in my entire life, and my own family with be restricted from associating with me. I do not want to do that to them, but at the same time, even though they are as much taken by the destructive beliefs as I was, the choice will ultimately be theirs. Believe what others tell them is true, or endeavor to decide that for themselves. And accept the consequences of their actions, just as I have to accept the consequences of mine.

I’ve probably said too much. I have tried to hold back, but my love of truth prevents me.

One final thought about the title of this post. In Shakespeare’s day, “doubt” had the alternative meaning of “suspect.” The line can thus be interpreted to mean “suspect truth to possibly be untrue.” Do not just take someone’s word for it, or the word of a group of people, even every person you know. They can be wrong. Prove it to yourself. Keep testing, keep proving what it is you believe, and never stop.

Alternatively, read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He possibly says it better than me.

2+2≠5

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