Vincent Clayton walked away from the world he knew for the chance to know more.
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I marvelled at the rhythmic flashing of colours as the family sat around the tree. Presents were handed out, smiles plastered on faces. This wasn’t my family, but I didn’t feel like an outsider. I was surprised to even receive gifts of my own. The room was full of happiness, decorations flooded the walls, and the tree stood tall protecting all the gifts underneath.
I was 19 years old, celebrating my first Christmas.
I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses so I didn't celebrate Christmas growing up. No birthdays, Easter, Halloween. No religious holidays. I watched as other kids did, I heard them all discuss it, but it never bothered me. That was what I knew and I always thought everyone else was weird.
While I was allowed to go to public school, association with those outside of the religion was supposed to be forbidden. This made the other kids curious. They often said they felt sorry for me when I couldn’t go camping with them. Some of them would let me borrow their Pokémon cards at lunch since I wasn’t allowed them at home. It wasn’t until high school that the questions finally became serious: “Why can’t you have a girlfriend? Does your mum hate you? Do you actually believe all that?”
At 16, I began to question it all. I found there were questions that couldn’t be answered, at least not as well as I would have liked. I wasn't sure why I had ever believed any of it.
It didn’t help that I was told not to pursue further education. I was told to dump the girl I had started dating which, as a teenager, was a big deal. I was told the music I was listening to and playing was evil. Megadeth, Opeth and Between the Buried and Me are apparently all products of Satan. I was even told to get rid of my copies of Star Wars and the comic books I had collected. I wanted to be my own person and I felt like they weren’t letting me. I was told everything I enjoyed was evil, blasphemous, satanic.
I realised that I needed to form my own beliefs, and the only way to do that would be to leave. So I did. Many of the members tried to get me to stay. They warned me about all the horrible things out there, they told me that I would eventually return, and said I would never feel fulfilled without the religion. But in the end, they accepted it.
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t actually brainwash people. They are still some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. They have a firm belief that they want to share with the world, because they care. They really care. I am still surprised at how supportive so many of them were. Sure, some gave me dirty stares in my final days, but they always did that. They just lingered a little longer than usual.
I was lucky all things considered. I knew of others who had left and were shunned by their families. My mum was far more supportive. She was disappointed, but she told me she was happy I was making my own mind up, just as she did.
When I left home for university just over a year later I was struck with the real world. Just like any 18-year-old I was ridiculously naïve, but I had also spent my life around people who never swore, barely drunk alcohol, and ignored the problems of the outside world.
So much was new to me. Even when I finally thought I had a grip, the 2014 election arrived.
Politics are generally ignored by Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t vote, they don't take sides, they distance themselves entirely. They are law abiding citizens but they just don’t believe in the validity of man ruling rather than their God. So when it came to an actual election, I had no idea what was going on.
I knew almost nothing about the political parties and I had no idea how voting worked. There was so much I didn't know, so I decided that I just wasn’t going to vote. A co-worker convinced me otherwise and, after weeks of him explaining why I should vote, I finally turned around.
When I look back on that now, I am actually ashamed. I am ashamed that I thought continuing to ignore was the better choice.
If I had to pick the worst thing I was ever denied being raised religious, it’s political awareness. I was so clueless about how our country is run, to the point where I didn’t care what was happening.
I have been without religion for over four years now and I’m still the same as I have always been. My taste is the same, albeit a bit more refined and free. But now I pay attention to the world. At times I do want to go back - life was far easier then - but I know that I wouldn’t be happy. I can’t be content if I don’t try to make something of myself, and if I had stayed I never would have.
I would still be living in a small town, with no education further than secondary school, ignorant of what’s really going on in the world. That’s why I am still glad I left.
I do miss some of my old friends. I do miss the security. But none of that compares to the freedom of mind that I have now.