Over these past couple weeks of woe Vicodin basically became a part of the Food Pyramid for me, so the topic of analgesics and other drugs has been on my mind.
For some reason I thought of a friend’s story of a drug trial he participated in in college. A pharmaceutical company was offering to pay people $1, 000 to have a minor medical procedure performed in return for feedback about a new pain medication they were testing. After a quick calculation of how many six packs of Schlitz they could buy with that kind of money, my friend and his roommate signed up. Participants were aware that some people would be given the real drug, whereas others would receive only a placebo, a sugar pill, to control for potential psychological factors (e.g. people feeling pain relief because they expected to, not because the drug was actually working).
When I asked about the results my friend said that his roommate wasn’t sure if he was part of the control group — his pain was pretty bad, but it seemed to go off and on, so he was pretty sure he got the sugar pill. When I asked my friend if he thought he got the real drug, he said with a laugh, “Ooooooh, yeah. You know the real thing when you get it.” In what was probably an annoying attempt to play devil’s advocate, I pushed him on the issue. How did he know that the pain relief wasn’t just the placebo effect, the results coming only from his mind? He responded with a laugh, “Because it completely knocked me on my a**.”
Though it’s not a very eloquent way to phrase it, that’s how I feel about Christianity.
Every now and then I get a comment suggesting that all of changes I’ve seen in my life since my conversion can be chalked up to a sort of placebo effect. Perhaps I wanted Christianity to be true, so I saw what I needed to see to make it true.
First of all, the fact is that that I didn’t really want Christianity to be true. I perceived the entire religion to be a nothing more than a fairy tale that people used as a mental crutch. I thought that Christianity was synonymous with things like homophobia and sexism, so I gagged at the idea of ever calling myself a “Christian”. And I really, really did not want the Catholic Church to have any truth to it since I thought it was a corrupt institution that made people feel guilty about everything.
That aside, perhaps some hidden part of my subconscious wanted it all to be true. Or maybe it filled some need I wasn’t aware I had, or I just wanted to see results because I’d invested so much time researching and reading about it. Maybe it’s all the placebo effect. Maybe I got a sugar pill.
Like my friend in the pharmaceutical study, the notion makes me chuckle to entertain it. I can’t prove it to anyone else, but I know what I’ve experienced. And it ain’t no sugar pill.
Even in my pre-religion days, I was always interested in self-reflection and self-improvement. I read lots of popular secular books about how to be a better person, find happiness, improve relationships with others, etc. and tried all sorts of techniques to improve these things. So I’m pretty well aware of what my capabilities are in terms of making changes in my life: and it’s not that impressive. Years of trying to improve my life on my own yielded very few results.
And then I stumbled into Christianity. I never intended for my attempts to live as a Christian to bring about much change in my life. I saw it as an intellectual endeavor rather than self-improvement project. I had come to the conclusion that the religion seemed to have some truth to it, so I thought I’d try living the way this Christian God would want us to live if he existed, just to see what happened. I thought of it as an almost entirely intellectual exercise.
Pardon the expression, but I find that what happened next is best described by paraphrasing my friend in the pharmaceutical study: I was knocked on my a**. It was like the foundation of my life started crumbling below me and I found myself riding a landslide to a totally different existence. Rather than the surface-level, temporary changes I’d seen in my life when using secular methods that relied on self alone, with Christianity I experienced a deep transformation that went down to the root of my soul. It was not something I could have brought about on my own.
When things started to happen like pride, cynicism and irritability being edged out by love, hope and peace, it was not of my own doing. I liked being prideful, cynical and irritable. It’s just who I was (and, most importantly, it made for good blog posts on my old blog). But, sometime after I started the Christianity experiment, all of those traits began to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to change, but it’s almost as if I had no choice — I so deeply craved more of the peace and joy that I’d found only in the Christian religion that I no longer felt comfortable living life the way I had before. Much like being on a drug, my perception of the world around me, my actions, my desires, even my innermost thoughts were altered. Some force had acted upon me, slowly transforming me into the better person I never intended to be.
All my life I’d always thought that Christianity was a sugar pill. I thought that people swallowed it and then saw whatever they needed or wanted to see to make themselves feel better. But now that I have tried it for myself, I see that Christianity brings with it Something real, powerful, and external to the human mind. I agree with my friend in the drug study — you know the real thing when you get it. And this is the real thing.
UPDATE: I realized after re-reading this that I should clarify that, as I’ve mentioned before, the results were not instantaneous. I don’t want to give the impression that I had a thunder-and-lightning conversion experience, since that certainly is not the case. Also, even in the midst of becoming a very different, better person as the result of Christianity, I still didn’t feel God’s presence in the way other people seemed to. Ironically, I still felt rather spiritually dry even as all these changes began to take place. So, to be clear, the results were huge, but they came about slowly and didn’t involve much raw emotion for a long time. That was actually one of the things that really surprised me about the whole thing: I thought that having a religious experience was all about emotion and feeling. I would have never guessed how much God can change you even when you’re just going through the motions.
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