Friday, April 24, 2015

Diet and Polar Bears

When I first met the COG at the tender age of 16, I had been anorexic for about 9 months. I don't really know how I looked, due to the skewed nature of the self-perception of the anorexic, but I would guess I was somewhat skeletal.

Joining the cult gave me a sense of purpose for my life, and a distraction from whatever brought on that eating disorder. My extreme dedication led me to spend any spare moment reading the bible and the various publications of the group - as new members ("babes in Christ") were supposed to do. "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby." (1 Peter 2:2)

As well, since "bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all men" (I Timothy 4:8), I felt compelled to stop exercising and instead spend my time studying.

You can imagine the physical consequences of those decisions.

Anorexia had robbed my body of its natural appetite and natural control. I had lost the sense of proper eating. I ended up, obviously, eating too much for the minute amount of physical activity I was doing, and I gained weight - ending up weighing more than when I decided to stop eating at the beginning of my anorexia.

At age 18, when I moved into the COG colony (as the communal home was called), the problem only worsened with the diet of cheap food and limited, old, poor quality fruit and vegetables. I gained even more, until I was about 10 kilos overweight, which was very upsetting for this former anorexic.

Try as I might, I could not get that weight off. As the years passed, the more I thought about cutting back on eating, the more I didn't cut back on eating. Focusing on dieting always backfired.

It was when I became pregnant at age 23 that the breakthrough came. I finally stopped thinking about losing weight, and changed my focus to obtaining the optimal nutrition for my unborn child. I counted protein grams, and was very mindful of my intake of vitamins and minerals, and I went for daily walks. All this, for the purpose of growing a healthy baby.

The result? When I brought my 4.5kg, 2 day old baby home from the hospital I weighed less than when I had conceived. Changing focus was all that was needed.

Recently I learned of the research done by psychologist Daniel Wegner on "ironic processes." Inspired by Dostoevsky's words, "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute," Wegner observed that experimental subjects told not to think of polar bears for 5 minutes, true to Dostoevsky's idea, thought of them, on average, more than once per minute.

So it went with my dieting attempts. Trying to think of not eating, made me think of eating, and it followed that trying not to eat, made me eat.

One of Wegner's suggestions for overcoming this tendency was exactly what I had stumbled on - to focus on something else. If our minds are busy with something else, there is no room for the thought we are trying to avoid to enter.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Many religious groups practice tithing, the rule of giving 10 percent of one's income to the group. The COG also required tithing as a requisite for full-time membership - the "highest calling" for God's chosen people which I aspired to. 

But the COG went way further than requiring 10 percent. There were always extra percentages added on, for the maintenance of leadership, printing of publications, and the like. Additionally, if we wanted to give above and beyond that, we were encouraged to do so.

We also read appeals from people around the world who were doing more humanitarian type work in the COG, and these pulled at our heart-strings, succeeding in getting us to send them money. As well, I had a friend who was doing, I felt, noble work with helping orphans, so I gave an extra 5% to her - of course, via the group. This brought our tithe to around 20%, which I would say was the average that we gave over the years that we actually had income in the group.

Most of our time in the group was spent with only the pittances that we got from begging, oh, I mean, "witnessing" (proselytizing). Naturally, all of that went to the group. We received daily meals and a roof over our heads, which was considered sufficient. "We were the blessed and chosen people of God," after all, so who would complain? "Our treasures were being laid up in heaven." Matthew 6:20 

Clothing was usually in the form of donations - often used clothing. Indeed, we were often clothed in ill-fitting, ill-matched, and unflattering clothes. 

The obvious trouble with this short-sighted financial policy is that now, as we grow older, we have no retirement funds. The fanciful feeling in the group was that we would "serve the Lord" until we died, and the group would continue to grow and provide a safe haven for us. Reality is that the young people left in droves, many older people left as well, and the COG is in no way a viable place for the care of the elderly. 

Those that left the group were left high and dry: no savings, no social network, nothing. We were forced to start from $0 and support our (generally) large families, and save for retirement or else come up with a way to support ourselves when we grow old and frail.

Of course, the money given to that nonsense was a very unfortunate waste. If it had instead been placed in a retirement fund, surely we would feel more secure about our futures.

On the positive side, living in poverty for so many years has certainly taught me, and my older children who experienced it more than the younger ones, how to live very frugally; so frugal that saving money and spending as little as possible is second nature to me. Sadly, though, it seems to be the case of too-little, too-late.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Future Prospects

MRIs have shown that the area of the brain that is activated when subjects think of their future selves is the same area that is activated when they think of strangers. Without conscious effort, we each have a physiological disconnect from the older "us."

Further, we tend to think of our future selves as more favorable versions of our present selves. We idealize our futures - how self-disciplined we will be, how healthy we will be, how secure our positions will be - without envisioning the unknowns (How can we?) that pop up in daily life that derail even our most well-made plans. 

This idea is promulgated by the media in the popularity of stories about, for example, very fit elderly people, as if this were some sort of state that all of us could partake of, if we would just (fill in the blank with whatever is being promoted): exercise more, eat raw foods, abstain from vices, etc. This results in an availability cascade of information that feeds an unrealistic image.

We could even fall prey to this bias by sabotaging our goals, whatever they may be, by telling ourselves we'll do better the next day. "Tomorrow I will..." and make up for today's lapse. But tomorrow we will still be ourselves and subject to the same randomness that we had to deal with today.

This inherent tendency to be disconnected from our future selves may account for, among many other things, why people have dusty workout equipment in their houses. Bought with the best of intentions of regular use, reality came into play and the dust gathered, illustrating that our future selves are more likely to be like our present, procrastinating, disorganized selves, than what we might prefer to imagine.

(Perhaps some businesses use this tendency to their advantage, such as those who sell gym memberships to all those New Year's resolution makers with their unrealistic ideas of their year ahead.)

In my case, for years, virtually afraid to say "no," I overloaded myself continually. Due to my optimistic appraisal of what I would be able to accomplish in the future (even the next hour or day), I allowed leaders to give me work, yea, I volunteered for more work than would be physically possible for me to do. Enter stress and all its accompanying physical and mental ramifications, and final nervous breakdowns.

I wonder what things that I should do today that I prefer to push off onto that nebulous future me? Or conversely, what undesirable things will I give myself permission to do today that I think my future self will not do, or perhaps be so virtuous as to make up for?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Moral Licensing: When good and bad are weighed in the scales, and good wins

This concept somewhat overlaps with the self-serving bias that I wrote about before. When we think of ourselves as a good person, or in the moral licensing case, as having done good works, then we subconsciously give ourselves permission to do something bad. You can see this played out in the everyday lives of many people, perhaps even yourself.

"Five more minutes on the weights, and I'll be able to get that frappachino." The "good" permits the "bad." It's a human tendency that we all are apt to unwittingly fall prey to.

First of all, though, I think the whole concept of what is good and what is bad needs to be called into question. Sometimes we deem things good or bad that are neither, as in my example of weights and coffee. In other cases, things that are truly morally repugnant are considered acceptable because the good has outweighed them in the minds of the doers. 

The leadership in TFI/COG could very easily develop an elevated sense of righteousness. After all, they were the ones "chosen" to "shepherd God's chosen people." Since they were clearly "good" to have such an exalted status, then how could they not feel moral license to do things that were bad? This has been demonstrated in the numerous incidents of abuse (sexual, physical, and psychological), as well as widespread embezzlement.

This brings to mind my life with certain leaders - which would include the majority of my years within the group. The most egregious of these were in my years in a Third World country (starting at age 19), when the preponderance of the members were living in virtual poverty, hardly able to even afford an electric fan, yet the leadership had air conditioned houses and the money to eat regularly in nice restaurants. As well, I was employed (sans salary) to care for their children, cook, and clean 24/7. Clearly, their "goodness" allowed for this lifestyle.  

Perhaps this moral licensing can also help to explain why so often the moral "greats" of our society (religious leaders and the like) often succumb to outrageous immoral temptations.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Today I cleaned out many old emails. It was both frightening and enlightening to see how far I've come from the insecure, emotionally dependent creature I had been. This is not to say that I have attained some sort of perfection, but as Daniel Kahneman has wisely said, "You know you have made a theoretical advance when you can no longer reconstruct why you failed for so long to see the obvious."

From my current perspective, it is clear to see how unnatural my relationship with my husband had been. We were not straightforward and honest with each other, but rather played passive/aggressive word games as our odd form of email communication. Neither of us came right out and said how we felt. I know I didn't for fear of offending him and then having to deal with the consequences, which usually took the form of a long rant concerning my past and present failures and inadequacies. I'm sure he had his reasons, as well. Suffice it to say, passive/aggressive behavior was the hallmark of our relationship.

It is frightening to think how my life would have continued had we not moved apart, for which change I feel I can take no credit. Even after he was gone, I still thought of my marriage with ambivalence. On the one hand, I clung to my dreamworld of companionship and happiness, and I was loathe to let that go. On the other hand, I felt anger and betrayal at how I had been used. I provided him with a cover, the outward appearance of "normalcy" of a good ole sage married couple. "Sure we've had our ups and downs, but so has everyone else." I was an indispensable part of his public image, yet all the while even the smallest physical contact with me was repugnant to him. It was such a farce. (Arm over shoulder? Only for photos.) Now I wonder how I could have clung to such a pretend relationship for so many years.

I am very glad that I no longer spend my days living in the delusions - both cult and marriage - that I clung to for most of my life, and I hope I have developed a healthy awareness of, and respect for, how easily one can sincerely believe utterly false things.