1992, 12/24-25. Big Brother Is Watching You.
Brother Stewart Is Watching You.
How We Are Controlled.
Against A Backdrop Of Conformity, Anything Different Gets Noticed.
I wrote this while doing a job for Christian Brothers Wood Floors, one of the businesses owned by the Church of Bible Understanding. It was the night before Christmas and we worked into the early morning hours, refinishing the wood floors at Puleo’s Restaurant in New York City. I was spending Christmas Eve in COBU’s wood floor business.
I wrote about how everyone in the church talked and acted the same. This uniformity was enforced by Stewart Traill, the leader of the cult, but many church members were zealous to act this way and seemed to like it. Against this backdrop of conformity, anything different was easily noticed, which made this a passive surveillance system that kept everybody in line and under control.
I was becoming aware of the chains that held me bound captive, and how they worked.
I am now at Puleo’s. It is December 25th. It’s been a long night. I’m tired. As my thoughts begin to wander from the deadening routines of the immediate present, I get philosophical and reflective about my life now and about my past life.
I try to analyze the present by looking the past and sifting through it for clues for why my life is the way it is. But even if I do hit pay dirt – that is, if I find something obviously wrong I’ve done or that was told to or done to me, I have no context in which to change it. Nor do I have any context in which to believe what I am thinking is right. (Since everything seems to point to how everything I think is wrong.) So I wonder, what is the use then in trying to understand my past? Because in doing that, I’m coming from the place of “let’s change it then,” now that I understand what is wrong.
An example would be, if I were a person living in Communist Russia, gloating over the past and pointing to obvious faults in the current regime. But, so what? I can understand it, but the political and social system remains the same and I still live under the oppressive regime of the Angry Dictator. I am trouble to others if I open my mouth and trouble to myself for thinking such things. Also, if I am absolved from responsibility for my past and present actions by virtue of not being able to change anything – now or then – why does it still bother me? And why do I suffer from illusions that if I could only do something, I could fix this or that problem?
I am like a man in a wheelchair who still dreams he can walk and looks back to the days when he could. I find myself thinking that I am quite incapable of making any changes.
The only redeeming factor I can find in examining my life and my situation is that it feels good and it is a relief somehow. Maybe because by means of it, I take leave of the deadening realities of my present life. (The routines, the emptiness, the lack of opportunity for the smallest autonomous choice.) I am not talking about deciding what kind of jacket to buy, or whether I will work here or there. We are always told, “you choose,” “nobody is making you” and, “you do whatever you want, don’t you?” Bull manure! Nor am I talking about having variety in my life, or activities to unwind such as fresh air and exercise, or of the lack of self expression, or the inability to form relationships due to the intensely defined caveats of our total institution (nothing can grow), or the set in granite finality of our way of doing things. (If I were to give a name to this era in our church, it would be “The Prohibition.”)
[Dating and marriage was not allowed in the Church of Bible Understanding. And it is not allowed there even now.]
Writing this is a means of inward travel. Since my body (and person) are held quite fast.
I feel like I’m under constant surveillance and that I must guard myself every minute. It’s not that someone is actively watching me and is assigned to monitor me. It is that anything out of the ordinary will be immediately noticed.
The way this works, is that everybody here lives, thinks and talks the same way. And although there are slight differences between people because of their individual personalities and habits, anything deviating from the norm, no matter how small, sticks out like a sore thumb and is noticed.
Aside from violent, disruptive deviations when someone blows up, yells, gets “arrogant,” walks off a job or leaves for a day, or gets drunk, which are noticeable deviations in any church and shouldn’t be tolerated. But the sources and the issues involved are not dealt with. It’s only, “you have no right to be arrogant,” or “your own sin is your basic problem.” True enough. But it stops there. (No one will deal with anything. Possibly coming from that hard and fast rule of, “You know what the rules are!”)
The overall idea or main concern is that order be maintained. Everything is sacrificed to that order, at all costs. (Our wants and desires are secondary, even non-existent. So, what we get is an outward appearance of peace and cooperation that seems genuine. Everything functions smoothly and everyone goes about their business.)
Now, what one desires above all is to avoid trouble or standing out in any way in disturbing this peaceful order. Above all, manifestation of self (whether it be will or desire) is not to be shown. It is the goal that everyone strives for and are keenly aware of and are achieving success in, if it can be maintained. They are also avoiding trouble and closer scrutiny of their persons and lives by doing this. It’s a desperate thing. It is a clearly conscious goal and effort. A holy grail. An indicator and barometer of success. A guide path, track or beacon – or if even, I hesitate to add – an idol (?) Like in Isaiah  about how they all work together on it. But it seems to me that this comes down from the very top. Stewart makes us live this way and he requires it of us, so how could that be (considered) wrong?
[We were not allowed to say that Stewart Traill could be wrong about anything. So, if our way of life came from what Stewart required of us, how could it be wrong? No matter how messed up our way of life seemed to be!]
It is touted as the right thing. The right method of life, the “loft life.” All those meetings when Stewart talked to us about the suppression and destruction of self and of this life (“self must die”). It was a teaching that was heavily pounded into us. We have a command and a directive to do this. Stewart never speaks of this way as being wrong. He approves of it, works for it. He drives for it and is satisfied and pleased with the result. It’s what he wants. He exudes it from every pore. He means it, he demands it. Don’t get in his way! He means our death, our subordination and mortification, our obedience to it.
[One of Traill’s main teachings was that we must put our lives in this world to death.]
[(1) The passage I was referring to above is Isaiah 44:12, “The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm.” And, Isaiah 44:17 “….From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me; you are my god.”
Everyone in COBU was working so hard to build this way of life, which seemed to me to be a wrong way of life, but Stewart Traill, the great teacher and man of truth was not speaking against it. He was promoting it and others were working together with him to build and maintain it and keep it going. I did not see Stewart speak against it. Instead, I saw him coming down on anyone who stepped out of line.]
A BACKDROP of CONFORMITY becomes our PRISON. A PRISON without BARS or GUARDS.
What I mean about “clearly conscious effort” is that we seem delighted to work hand in hand with Stewart on this. At least we’re doing this right! See, we’re doing it, please don’t be mad at us!
We participate in our own subordination and police everyone else to do the same. (By a collective conformity so that any incongruity is immediately discernible. That is an incredible force and I really feel it. I wonder if this is a large part of that constantly under surveillance feeling I have).
So, there are things I’d like to do that are not wrong in themselves. They have no moral significance. I would like to start jogging again, take a trip up the Hudson. Do artwork. And do it openly, without feeling I have to go into a closet and hide it. But against the backdrop of conformity, this stands out. This backdrop of conformity, which no one notices. They only notice what is not similar to it, like a white dot on a black wall. No one notices the wall, because there are no details. They only see what is different. If the wall had many colors and shapes on it, the white dot would be part of the entire pattern, and not noticed.
It’s a snare that lies there passively until some unsuspecting quarry steps in it. Then it is active and does its job well. If the intended quarry saw something attacking it, it would be scared off. The trap is effective through its passivity.
These things I want to do are little things. What if I did a lot of these little things, all the time? (It would be conspicuous consumption, as Peter T. calls it.) The question becomes: I see you doing these things, where are you really at? Greater issues are then called into play, which one avoids through conformity. But the little things can lead to big things. (To preserve something, you must hide it.)
It works like this (and this what causes the under surveillance feeling): someone questions me about my innocent little activity. “Is it right? Should you be doing it? What if everyone did that? What if everybody did whatever they wanted?” Then they ask, “Are you saying by your example that everyone can do whatever they want?” I am promoting chaos. So an issue comes up. Let’s get to the heart of it: I am attacking the church and all that it stands for! (And thereby attacking God, the truth and the Christian faith if anybody tries to take it that far on me. The ax is always waiting. And not many, no one really, is willing to push for anything because of it. It’s better to conform. Ahead of time.)
[If I was doing any personal interest or hobby, or anything that was not the church agenda for the use of my life and my time, and if I were called to account for it, the line of argumentation used against me (when I tried to say, it’s just a little thing, why does it matter?) was, “What if everyone in the church did whatever they wanted to do?” (I would be accused of promoting chaos. Because chaos would result if everyone in the church followed their own pursuits, even just a little bit, even on the side. It would cause our regimented lifestyle to break down.) We were always in a crisis mode and were always required to be at our posts, working hard for the church. (Working hard for Traill.) We were supposed to be destroying our own interests and desires and “putting to death our lives in this world.”]
That’s really what it is, and what it’s heading toward and will turn into! It’s acceptable if no one bothers me about my little activity. But if someone does question it and I justify it and give reasons for it, this is what happens. And if it has gotten to the point of anyone telling me to put an end to it, and I persist and decide to do it anyway. Now I’m in trouble. There are never any intermediate issues. It’s all or nothing. It is either not an issue, or I am attacking the church by the very roots. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, my decision to jog has cosmic significance. As does my decision to keep doing it if I’m told not to. That’s the issue that will be brought up. It’s not the thing itself. It’s my refusal to comply. (I’m a gameplayer for trying to get them into the circumstance.) This is where the ante skyrockets. Am I willing to risk all for the sake of some activity, for the preservation of some corner of self? (Now that it has been discerned.)
[The issue wasn’t that I wanted to go jogging, it was the fact that I have been told not to and I am still doing it anyway. The thing itself, jogging, was not the issue now, it was my disobedience to the “body of Christ” as represented by the other church members, and this was ultimately disobedience toward God, and those who disobey are rebels, and now my little activity took on eternal consequences and this is how I will be dealt with and what I will be talked to about. If I said the issue they were talking to me about was my desire to go jogging, this would be considered to be getting them into side issues, when really, the disobedience of my flesh and my rebellion against God were the real issue. This way of dealing with things made it impossible to talk to anyone about my personal interests or any significant problem or issue in my life. It was better to just tow the party line, in advance, because this is what I would be brought back to conforming to anyway.]
This is how and where I am bagged! Everything is tied into that. I wish I could explain it better. I’m signed, sealed and delivered – already.
I’ll try to narrow it down. It’s not the thing that I want, in and of itself. It’s what I am up against. And I’m certainly not going to risk all in order to get that thing. They know that. They can parlay this little “don’t do that” into a big “or else,” instantly. Suddenly it’s sky high and over this issue. I’m cast into the role of being an enemy of all righteousness if I resist. It is a monumental and mind-staggering charge that they are accusing me of and I am set up in such a way that I can’t talk about or explain my way out of it. There is only one way of escape set before me in this method of leverage and that is compliance, giving in and obeying. (But, am I obeying God or man?) It’s set up so that compliance is the only (face saving) way out. Because of all the other pressures brought to bear on me that I never thought of or even intended. (I didn’t intend to be an enemy of all righteousness by doing some activity or interest!)
I am not allowed to talk about that thing itself as an explanation. Like it or not, I am cowed and cornered into making a decision according to these terms and according to only two clear choices now.
Two choices that are totally divorced from the original issue. (Distilled and set aside as new grounds and I wonder how I ever got into this.) In spite of that however, I had better not dare do the thing again and try to say the thing itself isn’t the issue!)
[The irony of that. I was told that the thing I wanted to do (jogging in this case) was “not the real issue,” but if I persisted in doing it, I couldn’t in my defense say that that thing (jogging) was “not the real issue” when they called me to account for doing it. If it is not the “real issue,” then I can keep doing it, right? My activities were studying foreign languages, exercising and drawing. When I protested against this overwhelming pressure to give these things up, I was told that no one had ever told me I could not do them (even though I was directly told not to do them many times). It was also clear to me that the treadmill of church life and the conformity of all the others to utterly denying themselves was further pressure and evidence tha I was most certainly expected to deny all my wants and desires. This double talk, denial and extreme pressure to live in regimented conformity was part of COBU life.]
In fact, my very disagreement and fighting over it is doubled back on me as a further charge of my stubbornness – further strengthening their position, and further undermining my attempt to maintain my position built on silly human rationalizations for what I want.
It is quickly exploded into a matter of eternal significance in a way that it will now be seen whether I stand on the side of truth or of darkness! Not only on this issue now – it’s me, my whole life. This is another way in which an insignificant thing is suddenly exploded into extreme proportions. It’s multiplied, endlessly doubled back on itself, like seeing my image in a hall of mirrors. I’m caught by a handle, but I don’t quite know how. This is an attempt to explain it.
Each time, I am backed into a corner. And each time I struggle, I am also backed into a corner, because of the terms it’s put over on me. Which is that resistance is wrong. Then there’s the way of escape set before me, which is conformity. Another way the force multiplies on me is that I will now be seen as resisting a good thing. (Resisting love, a way of escape lovingly presented.) You perverse thing! The concept of “seen as.” I am not mentioning here how the other people present play a significant role. It could not be done without them.
If you were talking with Stewart on the phone, you know he will tell you to go speak to everyone when the call is over. And since everybody knows Stewart told you to do that, they also know to carry out his orders, which you will describe to them, because those orders are included in the questions you are told to ask everyone. It will look like they are “discussing” and “freely considering,” but they know they must obey orders.
[Often, when we were together in a meeting, we had to select an ambassador to call Stewart on the phone. Aside from giving a report on what was happening at the meeting, the nominee’s spiritual condition was usually evaluated by Stewart as well. The ambassador then would come back to the meeting, and along with Stewart’s general messagess might have to ask “does everyone see me as being wimpy or fully there?” or “who sees me as being faithful to Christ and who sees me as thumbing my nose at Christ?” With questions like that, it was fairly easy to see the desired outcome. The message embedded in the question was that we were supposed to find that person, after an apparently factual session of inquiry, as being wimpy or in rebellion against Christ, or whatever other terms and conditions were implied in the question the person had to ask everyone. An ambassador never came back and said “Stewart said I was in rebellion.” No, they had to ask everyone and put it to a vote. With a predictable outcome. This was a method to humiliate anyone who talked to Stewart and to make everyone else think negatively of that person.]
It’s not surprising what course I’ll decide. It’s just too hard to resist. I won’t say I disagree later. I am not willing to gamble everything to fight for some little point. Even if I didn’t give in immediately, I would be put on a three day sudden death basis. I am just not able to buck that current.
[A three day watch, or probation period, in which to conform to the opinion being forced on me or be forcibly thrown out of the church. The comment above about talking to Stewart on the phone was a way of showing how the others will find me as being in rebellion for “doing my own thing” even though it looks like they are freely examinine my behavior and have come to an honest opinion about it. More likely that not, Stewart had already given an opinion about my behavior, and the others were just following orders on how to think about me and what to do about me. In this case, it wasn’t a phone call, but his pronouncements about me at a meeting.]
Also, since I was looking for relief in the thing I did, I am not willing to be thrown out and to experience a huge discomfort that would far outweigh the little consolation I got from my autonomous activity – even if I did it out there. The threat of banishment reigns supreme over men’s minds and hearts. At least in my mind and heart anyway.
I am a prisoner of compulsion and not conviction.
I am a coward. But I think of the battle and I don’t want to do it again. I’ve been through that.
As it is, I try to design and pursue all my little autonomous activities when and where they can’t be seen. Many of them are intangible and have no physical attributes, like thinking about certain things or learning things or following current events. I can know about it and follow it without possessing anything or be seen as doing anything out of the ordinary. I can do this by reading a newspaper. Almost everyone reads the paper, so it’s inconspicuous (and doesn’t stand out as different). But no one sees my eyes anxiously scan over the business section looking for an article on railroads. No one knows that I follow issues relating to Japan, Germany, the Common Market and other things.
No one is bothered about this, but the agreement is, don’t let me see you doing it. Nobody is supposed to be into anything. Especially not if it reaches a level of affectation. (But then, how does anyone learn anything without affection and desire for the thing itself or for what that thing can bring you? Desire, attraction and interest facilitate learning and the rapid assimilation of otherwise boring information and create an eagerness to make it work. The attempt to learn facts and figures in a subject outside your area of attraction can be extremely difficult, if not impossible to do.)
Other activities that do have tangible attributes or require time and certain objects and possessions, I try to weave into my daily pattern, usually without success. Sometimes I try to jog. Or, I’ll wait till I’m guarding alone to do artwork.
It’s essential that I don’t look like I’m enjoying anything. But I could be enjoying a book. But that looks rather dull to an observer, since he doesn’t see my thoughts. He only sees me sitting there with a book.
I must portray myself as not being interested in anything. Nothing, short of a temper tantrum, is surer to raise hackles than that.
Individuality, choice, autonomy in things human and divine.
I like walking for exercise. I try to fold it into my daily routine, but I if it became known that I get up early to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge on the way to work, well, that would cause a disturbance. We’re not here for a country club. All must suffer patiently.
The issue of suffering. This is where I am flying in the face of the order and attacking the roots of the church. I think this is what incites the wrath of others toward me.
[Our “suffering,” according to Traill, was that we were supposed to give up our lives in this world and “not live out the things that seem to be there,” our desires, yearnings, talents and ambitions. Having even a little pleasure was forbidden. I liked to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. That could take an hour, but if I got up early and was at the office when everyone else arrived, no one knew about my walk. If others knew, it might have “caused a disturbance” because I was “doing my own thing” and enjoying “something in this life.” I would have been caring about about fitness, which is something in this life. I would have been enjoying something, alone by myself, and not thinking about my desperate spiritual condition and fearing hell every moment of the day.]