Outside the Box: Verticality, sameness, and the world of The Giver



My friend J.B started blogging this summer over at Finding Normalcy: Insights in a Noisy World. Here are his thoughts.

Jonas wasn’t interested, just then, in wisdom. It was the colors that fascinated him. “Why can’t everyone see them? Why did colors disappear?” The Giver shrugged. “Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness.
Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with differences.” He thought for a moment. “We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”
– Lois Lowry, The Giver

Growing up in the subculture of Bill Gothard’s IBLP / ATI program as a young boy, I often now find myself at a loss for words when telling my story to others. It’s a feeling that’s difficult to describe: not quite fear, or hesitancy to visit my past again. It’s more of an issue of understanding. In an outwardly focused culture like ours, there’s this subtle, often unnoticed tendency to focus on the obvious and visible things, particularly if they feel distant enough to criticize. If you start talking to others about growing up in a cult-like environment, the attention will naturally be directed at all the crazy ideas propagated by the cult. It’s what sticks out. To those who have never had such an experience, seeing someone going back to process and cope with it all feels unnecessary, perhaps even harmful. Why relive the past, especially when you recognize the problems with it? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that it was wrong and move on?

For a while, I thought so too. It was so easy to assume, “I’m not there anymore, so everything’s alright.” And in the process, I swept under the rug so many issues of the heart that needed to be confronted long ago. After hitting an emotional rock bottom in college, I finally realized that there was something that needed resolution. I needed a paradigm shift. It took several years before understanding just how much my time in IBLP stunted my emotional, social, and spiritual growth. Even then, there was a tendency to focus on the obvious.

“A led to B? Huh, that explains everything. Welp, time to move on!”

Still then, there were deeper issues that needed to be examined. In the years that followed, I discovered groups of people online who had similar childhoods. They were trying to figure out this whole life thing too and were similarly discouraged by how little support they received from “the outside.” Anything that could help them process their experiences was helpful, even if it was just a fictional story. One story in particular captured my attention in relation to social interaction, especially after it was adapted into a feature film: Lois Lowry’s 1993 book The Giver. It didn’t take long before I began to see some rather familiar elements. And in the process, I began to realize that these types of stories could be useful in communicating to others why supporting those who are struggling to process their experiences is important.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a young adolescent named Jonas lives in a cloistered, colorless environment known only as the Community. In this world, pain and sadness were eliminated by enforcing uniformity, known in the story as Sameness. Everyone now lives in a “family unit,” contact within the Community is strictly regulated, and babies are manufactured in a laboratory. There’s no room for love or any kind of emotion, as all of it is sterilized through regularly administered medication. No one has any knowledge outside his or her own generation. In fact, the elders of the Community appointed one person, a “Receiver of Memory,” to maintain a library of memories from the past, including the painful ones, so no one else would have to be exposed to them.

At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the black-and-white world of the Community as Jonas attends the “Ceremony of Twelve.” This is a ritual in which all adolescents must participate in order to receive their Communit assignment for life. Soon, we discover that all aspects of one’s existence in the Community are under this type of control, including marriage. While Jonas’s peers receive rather mundane assignments, Jonas is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory. He is then brought under the tutelage of an elderly man who has functioned as the Receiver but must now embrace the role of “The Giver.” Through their friendship, Jonas soon discovers the existence of color and emotion – both positive and negative – and questions the wisdom of Sameness, eventually concluding that the Community has lost its way. He then determines to escape and journey into the unknown of “Elsewhere,” an action that would cause the memories to flood back into the Community.

While digesting this story, it was easy to focus on the obvious parallels. An oppressive institution? Check. Constant surveillance and draconian measures to ensure compliance, like those in the IBLP Training Centers? Check. Stifling romantic attraction between young people? Check. A drive to produce kids in the most sterile way possible to perpetuate the system? Check. But there was something else – something non-obvious – that kept tugging at me about this tale, and after pondering for a long while, it finally became clear.

The Community’s emphasis on verticality.

One of the toughest parts of telling my story is communicating just how insidious growing up in a place like IBLP can be as a kid. When you’re young, you have no real sense of discernment, no judgment center in your brain to help you determine how true the stuff you hear really is. It’s especially difficult when a master salesman like Bill Gothard slips in boatloads of assumptive language. When someone positions himself as an expert in a sales presentation and controls where the focus is placed, it’s all too easy to sidestep the base assumptions that inform the crux of that presentation. If you’re hooked by one of his key points, there’s a natural tendency to assume what he assumes and swallow the rest without any kind of scrutiny.

Some of the most foundational assumptions that have informed the bulk of IBLP’s teachings have to do with the relationship between Christians and the rest of the world. In the mind of Gothard, the world is nothing more than a corrupting influence against which believers must shield themselves. Everything else is predicated on this assumption (as well as others): the “umbrella of authority” and “chain of command” teachings, the importance of courtship as IBLP defines it, the need to outbreed the rest of the world by giving birth to as many kids as possible, and more. As a child, one of the ideas I soaked up was the rather negative view of peers. In the IBLP world, friends were nothing more than additional corrupting influences that could pull a young person away from his or her authority structure. Imagine a world like the one in Tangled, but with more towers than Rapunzel’s. Verticality, with an emphasis on remaining within one’s “family unit,” was the order of the day.

Growing up as a kid, I carried this rather adversarial mindset with me while interacting with anyone my own age. The ideals of IBLP felt so empowering that it was easy to feel superior to and more mature than everyone else. Friends were not people to encourage and be encouraged by but rather potentially negative influences with whom to avoid becoming too close. After leaving IBLP and moving to Texas, I was quick to embrace all the new relationships that awaited, but there was still that part of me that didn’t want to become too close to anyone. I’d get giddy about the prospect of feeling like I was close to someone without the actual relationship investment. I’d spend time flitting around between acquaintances in college to escape the scary process of becoming vulnerable with those with whom I needed to be vulnerable.

Even today, I’ve had to guard against closing myself off to people who may initially seem different. Throughout the post-IBLP healing process, there’s a pitfall I’ve struggled to avoid: trading the feeling of superiority to others by virtue of one mindset for another feeling of superiority to others by virtue of another mindset. It all goes back to dealing with the root issues – in this case, pride – instead of focusing only on the surface. Balancing horizontality and verticality in relationships, especially for a survivor of an abuse-enabling system, is difficult. But I think it’s worth it because the more we abandon the comfort of Sameness – the more perspectives and life experiences from those around us to which we’re exposed, the more we can grow and be challenged. That doesn’t necessarily mean dumping our personal beliefs entirely but rather finding ways to be grounded in what is true while identifying what isn’t.

A friend from grade school recently posted on Facebook something profound that I’ve kept with me to this day. In the realm of biases and perceptions, it’s tempting to succumb to a “birds of a feather flock together” mindset. It’s our human inclination. But doing so, whether in a cult-like environment or a survivor group, is ultimately toxic because our ideas and prejudices would be without accountability. It’s like the ideological equivalent of committing incest, only the potential mutations and abnormalities in the offspring are manifested in our thoughts as they evolve among ourselves. However, with a healthy dose of discernment, putting our convictions through the fire by engaging with those who are different from us is not the same as exposing ourselves to corrupting influences. The process helps us to weed out those mutations and strengthen what remains. If perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), then it’s impossible to love others if we’re fearful of them or what they have to say. Even outside the arena of ideology, I’ve been challenged since recently moving to a new city to be open to new interests (like watching football!) if it means ultimately bolstering a friendship and investing in another person’s life, creating new memories in the process.

Abandoning Sameness among our friend groups is difficult. But it can challenge us in some incredible ways. Even if it involves engaging with someone outside our “family unit,” or understanding memories and experiences that are horrifying or unfamiliar to us, it’s worth it.

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