The Worldwide Church of Pessimism
By John B
January 1, 2003
It’s funny how ideas come to you. In the shower this morning I was wondering if I should perhaps make a New Year’s resolution. Then I thought, “Why start now? I’ve never made one in my life!” And it occurred to me why I had never made one – I was taught that New Year’s and resolutions were pagan.
And after leaving WCG, I never got into the habit.
Then I realized what a life of pessimism I had lived, right up to the day I walked out of the cult. And how it affected almost every thought, every attitude, every action I ever took.
By virtue of my parents and the way they were raised, I was already vulnerable to pessimism as a child. My parents were good people – loving, hard working, honest to a fault – but they were products of a depressed generation. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and came from dysfunctional families (is there any other kind?). They fled Arkansas in 1951 to escape family persecution (long story), and arrived in California without a pot or a window, without even a car to drive.
Once in California, my parents worked hard, but Dad’s only skills were manual labor. He had been a farmer in Arkansas and remained a farmer for the rest of his life. He could have become self-employed (he had several opportunities), but he lacked the self confidence to give it a try. Instead, he labored long hours for low pay, and we were always poor. Poverty does not instill confidence or optimism.
Even before joining WCG, my mother instilled a certain pessimism in me. We moved frequently (almost every year – the longest I remained in one school was three years), and I was always the New Kid. When I came home complaining about this or that kid who had given me a hard time, Mom always said, “They think they’re better than you because we don’t have anything. They think we’re trash because we’re from Arkansas.”
Thanks, Mom. I really needed that.
She would usually add this: “You’re just as good as they are.”
Well, it didn’t feel like it. And being constantly reminded that others looked down on me (whether they did or not – more likely it was simply the dynamic of kids in action rather than snobbery) did not help.
What helped even less was actively joining a cult just as I was entering my teenage years. I had lived under the influence of Armstrong since the age of four, but at thirteen I came into direct contact with his minions. And they were nothing if not pessimistic.
Everything was a sin. Everything was pagan. Everything was negative. George Carlin got it right when he said, in effect, that God is looking for any excuse to kill you, “but HE LOVES YOU!” That was the message I took from WCG throughout the turbulent sixties. Nothing I did could ever turn out right. There was no point in preparing for a career, because the world was going to end in 1972. It wasn’t an opinion, or speculation – it was fact. God had told Armstrong and Armstrong had told his ministers and his ministers told us, in no uncertain terms, that IT WAS AS SURE AS THE DAWN. In 1965, visiting evangelist David Jon Hill told the Fresno congregation: “Ten years from today there won’t be a living soul walking the streets of Fresno!”
I suppose we were supposed to “rejoice” at that statement. Well, I
didn’t. I don’t see how anyone could.
A Way of Life
Pessimism was a way of life. The glass was never half full, always half empty:
Want to go to the football game?
No, it’s on Friday night.
Want to ask that girl out?
Can’t, she’s not in the church.
Want to watch Addams Family?
Sorry, it’s on Friday night.
Did you see the World Series game?
No, it was on Saturday.
Going to the Christmas party?
No, Christmas is pagan.
You better see a doctor about that cough.
Can’t, medicine is a sin.
Gonna get a job?
If I can find one where I don’t have to work Saturdays.
Going to college?
No, Ambassador turned me down.
You’re a pretty good writer, you ought to be a novelist.
No point, the world’s going to end.
You guys getting married?
What for? The church is going to flee next year.
You need to get a new car.
I’d like to, but after tithes I don’t have enough for payments.
You gonna try that new restaurant?
Too expensive – I gotta pay tithes.
I hear you lost your job.
Yeah, there was a Sabbath conflict.
How come you didn’t get that promotion?
I woulda had to work Saturdays.
Would you be interested in becoming a partner?
No, can’t be unequally yoked.
How come your life is shit all the time?
Because God loves me.
I drifted out of the church in 1973. Not because I wanted to, but things just built up on me until I couldn’t stand to be there. As a result of several weeks of nonattendance, Wayne Shiflet sent me a letter of disfellowship. It scared me, but not enough to get me back.
What’s interesting about that period (I was out of the church for over four years) is that I almost became happy. Good things happened to me during that time. I began to work Saturdays when required, and began to make some decent money (nothing huge, but better than minimum wage). I went to trade school, got a decent job, began to date, got married, bought a house, had a son. Life in the mid seventies was better than it had ever been.
I was plagued by pessimism.
The tribulation was already overdue. It was supposed to have started on January 7, 1972. It hadn’t, but that only meant it was about to start any minute. It had to happen, it was going to happen – Herbert W. Armstrong had said so. And I was out of the church. When the tribulation started and the church fled, I would be left behind; if I didn’t die by nuclear fire, or die of starvation in the famine, I would be tortured to death in a concentration camp. Not much of a future. Not much to look forward to. Not much reason for optimism.
I was free for the first time in my life, and yet I wasn’t. I had no ministers screaming threats at me, telling me what to do – but those ministers would survive while I was dying in agony.
It should have been obvious to me that none of that was going to happen. It should have been clear that Europe wasn’t forming into a ten-headed beast power, that the pope didn’t give a flying fuck about conquering the world (hell, he already owned the damned world!), that Herbert Armstrong didn’t really believe the world was about to end, because he was traveling all around the globe in splendid style. All those things should have been obvious to me, but they weren’t. Pessimism. I had been indoctrinated, brainwashed, programmed. My view of life and the world was one of complete and total pessimism. It didn’t matter what I did, how hard I tried, how hard I studied, how hard I worked – nothing was going to turn out right. I knew it in my heart, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Because of pessimism.
When my son was born in 1977, I looked at him lying in his crib and realized that, if I went through the tribulation, I at least deserved it. This perfect pink infant had done nothing to deserve such a fate, but because the bible says that God visits the sins of the fathers on the children, I knew that baby Ian would also suffer the tribulation because I was unfaithful.
So I went back, dragging my wife and child with me, and endured another fifteen years of slavery.
Everything about the Worldwide Church of God was geared to pessimism. Not only geared, but calculated. You were sucked into the church because of a pessimistic message about the future of the world, the survival of mankind. You were taught pessimism about other churches and religions. The future was a terrifying place, according to Armstrong and his media; earthquake, famine, disease, fire, flood, crime, persecution, war, invasion, captivity, agonizing death... and at the end of it all, the consuming fires of hell, if you didn’t follow Armstrong. Pessimism.
Those were the things that lured most of us in. Once we were in, it only got worse. While telling us that we were “special” and “a peculiar people” (at least they got that part right!), and exhorting us to rejoice in our misery, they chipped away at us week by week, month after month, year after year – and in my case, decade after decade.
Among the things that were sinful, “pagan”, or otherwise wicked (in addition to the more obvious sins such as breaking the 10 Commandments):
Knocking on wood
Saying “Bless you” when someone sneezed
Crossing your fingers
Crossing your heart
Talking about “luck”, or “lucky”
Saying “gee”, “gee whiz”, or “I swear”
Saying “heck”, “dang”, “darn”, “gosh”, or “golly”
Playing “pretend” games (for children)
Telling ghost stories
Having an opinion not already voiced by the ministry
Not praying enough
Praying too much
Eating white bread or white sugar
Rock and roll music
Most forms of dancing (just about everything but the waltz or the polka)
Most movies (except Disney and some historical dramas)
Any male hairstyle longer than a Marine cut
...and the list goes on.
Admittedly, not all of these were church-wide. Strictures varied from area to area, and were largely based upon the anal-retentive opinion of the local pastor. Some church areas did things that were forbidden to others, and the members judged each other for them. Everything was accomplished in a spirit of deep pessimism.
The Worldwide Church of God was really the Worldwide Church of Pessimism.
No New Year’s resolutions for me. It’s way too late for that.
If you have anything you would like to
submit to this site, or any comments,
email me at:
Email The Painful Truth
The content of this site, including but not limited to the text and images herein and their arrangement, are copyright © 1997-2003 by The Painful Truth. All rights reserved.
Do not duplicate, copy or redistribute in any form without prior written consent.