The sugar pill and the real thing

September 16, 2007 | 9 comments

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.


  1. lyrl

    I believe many of the values taught by Christianity and particularly Catholicism are true, and that you and many other people have experienced the real positive changes brought about by these true teachings.

    I don’t believe that having lots of good teachings means that everything they teach is true. It seems that the results you were having difficulty achieving in your life were brought about by changes you did not believe would achieve those results. Only by accepting (on a provisional basis) the idea that the Church’s teachings came as a package and they might all be true were you able to motivate yourself to take those steps that ended up surprising you with all these positive results.

    That the good things that have happened in your life are a result of your acceptance of Catholicism as a package (and would not have occurred had you only picked the teachings you believed would have results) does not mean every person would have to take the whole package of Christianity to achieve the same results.

  2. Jennifer F.

    I don’t believe that having lots of good teachings means that everything they teach is true.

    As you shouldn’t. That’s not why I think that all the teachings are true either. I came to that conclusion for different reasons.

    I don’t offer this post as proof that all that the Catholic Church teaches is true, since my data point of one probably wouldn’t be very compelling to skeptics. 🙂 Also, plenty of other people have improved themselves drastically through other branches of Christianity and other religions (though my impression is that you see more drastic changes in people when they embrace Christianity as opposed to other belief systems — I can’t back that up though. Just a personal observation).

    That the good things that have happened in your life are a result of your acceptance of Catholicism as a package…does not mean every person would have to take the whole package of Christianity to achieve the same results.

    I have no idea if this is true or not, since I don’t know what goes on inside other people’s souls. All I know is that the more deeply I delve into Christianity, the less I pick and choose and the more I humbly do what I’m supposed to do, the more I am changed.

  3. Abigail

    I’m right with you on the “sugar pill” vs. real thing approach. Maybe I would have figured out that I needed embrace the virtue of “patience” when I became a Mother without first converting to the Catholic faith. There is no way, however, that I’d actively be praying to embrace the virtues of humility, meekness & poverty. These are not fun traits by any stretch of the world’s imagination. Yet how much happier is my family when I can stretch a tiny ounce in just one of those three virtues!

  4. Catholic Mom

    When I had my first child I was already a physician and had completed my first year of a Family Medicine residency. For the last year I had been advising parents about childcare. After I had my first child I felt like I should apologize to every one of my patients’ parents. I realized that Nelson’s textbook of pediatrics had never had a child and until I had a child of my own, I didn’t have a clue. It was very humbling but made me a much better doctor.

  5. edj

    Just found you through Toddled Dredge. I loved this post. Beautifully written and very moving. (I guess I obviously agree with your conclusions 😉 although I’m not Catholic)
    I’ll be back.

  6. Misty

    You have beautifully expressed an experience that closely parallels my own. Thank you!

  7. Noel and Celeste

    Just wanted to know you’ve gained another reader… I have added you to my “blogs” bookmarks and look forward to sharing (vicariously through reading if in no other way) your victories and rewards in the Truth and Way.

  8. Carrien

    MAy I just say how much I am enjoying reading your story.

    As a cradle Christian and one who has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues from that viewpoint I find it very refreshing and encouraging to my own faith to read your thoughts and the things that brought you to Christ.

    When one only thinks as a Christian for so long, often one starts to lose sight of the otherness of it, the shocking and difficult elements of the faith that set it so far apart from secular thought and practise and I enjoy your accounts of your thoughts on both sides of this experience.

    And I am thrilled by the way your story shows how wonderfully redemptive and transformative God’s calling can be.

  9. Daiquiri

    This cracked me up! The idea of being “knocked on my a**”…that’s about the best way I’ve ever heard it explained.

    A cousin of mine was living in town and was a big part of our daily lives during the time of my search, and ultimately, my transformation.

    Mine wasn’t a thunder and lightning experience either, but it was pretty dang quick for the kinds of changes that happened!

    That cousin of mine is not a Christian, and simply does not (can not) understand what happened to me. She’s still waiting for me to “get over this Jesus thing”.

    She’s gonna have to wait a while! The changes in me are beyond me…and I suspect walking away now would be just as beyond me (that is, if I wanted to, and I don’t).

    My greatest hope is that she’ll get into this “Jesus thing” and know…know what it’s truly like to be knocked on her you-know-what!


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