How Not to Console a Sceptic

Someone very dear to me has recently been diagnosed with a very grave form of cancer. The condition is not untreatable, but the prognosis is poor. Five year survival rates for this condition are under forty percent. There is no reason to lose hope, but it would also be foolish to pretend the situation is not very serious. This person is from the Mormon part of my acquaintance, and in general I’ve been dealing with it better than the Mormons and other believers. I think this is because I can recognise that this tumour is just a statistical reality of the natural world. It’s horrible and it’s unfair and it’s bewildering, but it’s just random chance and my friend drew the short straw. I don’t have to go through the mental gymnastics of reconciling the Problem of Evil with the idea of a supposedly benevolent and just God. Sorry, people, but a young, decent, ethical person with small children being stricken with cancer serves no legitimate purpose for moral instruction. Any God that thinks that is a sick bastard who deserves to be dethroned as quickly as Satan can manage it.

So whilst a sceptic can come to terms with the gruesome facts of living in an impassive natural world full of death and destruction, there are a few things that make my brain boil. Here are precisely the wrong things to say to someone you know to be rational rather than superstitious when they are dealing with an already difficult situation.

1. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Everything happens for a reason? Really? I wouldn’t argue with this if those who spouted it off were just being literal. The solar system revolves for the reasons laid out by astrophysics. Bread rises for the reason that yeast digests sugars and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products. Men sometimes give their bollocks a good scratching for the reason that they have become itchy. And cancer emerges for the reason that random mutations or environmental hazards can trigger undesirable replication of cell structures. These are causes, but causes of events do not require a conscious initiator.

What I despise about this phrase is that it shows utter ignorance to something that humans really ought to be more aware of. In evolutionary history our slightly more paranoid ancestors survived better. If an Australopithecus heard a rustling in the brush and failed to react, it might turn out to be nothing but then it also might turn out to be a bloody great lion looking for a hominid hamburger. Individuals who attributed a conscious motive to every possible threat were more likely to survive because even when they were wrong about a lurking predator, they still sharpened their reflexes by running away from an imaginary threat. This has left us with a genetic predisposition to assign a motive to every force we encounter, and is likely the cause of our beliefs in gods.

Saying “everything happens for a reason” is a betrayal that you haven’t read the user’s manual on your own brain. Having the impulse to attribute a personal motive to outside forces is natural, but we now know enough about the brain to where you’re out of excuses if you give in to that primitive impulse. The universe is not a massive conspiracy theory. The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is precisely three words too long. Everything happens. Full stop. Do not attempt to sound deep by speculating about the wisdom of the universe when it comes to inflicting fatal conditions on people. Any force that would intentionally inflict cancer on a person is a complete arsehole, and therefore I have no interest in their reasons for behaving so badly.

2. Medical advice of any kind

Should you provide advice to me about my friend’s cancer? Let’s see. Are you a doctor? Are you her doctor? Are you her doctor, and have you familiarised yourself with all of the intricacies of her particular case? No? Then kindly shut up.

This problem is exacerbated by questions like “Has she considered alternative medicine?” I was told by someone today who is an unemployed clown — this is not an insult but rather a descriptor of a circus performer on the dole — that chemotherapy didn’t make sense because putting chemical poisons in a body that is already ill did not seem like a more sensible thing to do than, say, homeopathic placebo pills or acupuncture.

Let me clarify something for you, O thou genius devotee of Deepak Chopra: Alternative Medicine means something which is an alternative . . . to medicine. Medicine works because it is based on science. The alternative will not be based on science. Yes, chemotherapy is horribly toxic and often has dreadful side effects. But it works. Cancer is a civil war within a person’s body. There will be casualties in any battle that gains ground. While many aspects of the holistic movement can perhaps stave off disease through good nutrition and improved health, nothing at a natural foods store is going to kill cancer. It would be lovely if Chinese foot massages and herbal tisanes could magically dissipate tumours. And I’d like a flying pony while we’re engaging in wishful thinking. I’m not going to “teach the controversy” of Creation Science any more than I’m going to look into “alternative medicine,” because I’m not an expert and my anecdotal, nonscientific perspective is irrelevant.

3. “God has blessed us so much”

God botherers are at their most hypocritical when it comes to dealing out credit for the good and bad in life. If everything goes well, God gets all the credit for the hard work of human beings. If things go poorly, than any non-miserable factors in the equation are credited as blessings from the Lord. The horribleness of the situation must be twisted into some kind of good thing.

I don’t believe that when I moved house nearly a year ago and ended up living very close to my friend that this was part of God’s plan so that I could be on hand to help out when the cancer diagnosis came in, whatever my mother may say. In reality, I moved house because the city I moved to seemed like a nice place to live. And I don’t help my friend with babysitting and meals because I’m some kind of pawn of a sick man in the sky who enjoys watching people try to cheer one another up whilst suffering. I do it because I choose to. Because I care.

Look, believers, if your God was such a great guy, he wouldn’t have allowed the cancer to happen in the first place. Don’t skirt around that and tell me that it’s a blessing that we have oncologists and it’s a blessing that my friend has friends and it’s a blessing that my friend is otherwise healthy. None of these things are blessings. They are things that exist because real people did real work to make them happen.

4. “I’ll pray for you.”

Prayer only makes sense when you are dealing with a capricious, primitive god that is open to bribery. That’s why ancient people sacrificed goats and did rain dances. They believed their gods were just like them — people coasting through existence who were capable of momentary whims. Bribing an imaginary friend for favours makes no sense at all when you believe that your God is omniscient and that he has a plan. If it’s in his plan for my friend to get cancer, then where on earth do you get off asking him to reconsider? If your God is really so bloody smart, what does he need your suggestions for? Either God is capricious and won’t cure cancer without making you go through a song and dance to beg him properly. This would make him a sadist. Or he has a plan, and cancer is part of that plan, which would make him an arsehole. The obvious resolution is that he’s a figment of your very twisted imagination. If you want to plea bargain with your sociopathic imaginary friend, do it on your own time and don’t tell me about it or I’ll just think you’re barmy.

Fighting cancer is hard enough without having to also fight against pseudoscientific nonsense, new agey platitudes, and mindless religiosity. Some things are just random chance. We have much better odds of beating them if we accept the reality of the situation instead of falling into wishful thinking.

Ms. Jones Comes Out

I was recently humbled and honoured when a friend came out to myself and Mr. Molly as trans. I asked our friend, who is male-to-female trans, if they would not mind sharing their transformation with my readers here. Luckily for all of you, she was comfortable sharing her journey. As a starter, I’ve asked “Ms. Jones” to answer the basic questions provided in the PFLAG questionnaire as an informative exercise for myself. A note on comments: since Ms. Jones is just dealing with the first baby steps of coming out, absolutely no negative commentary will be tolerated. If transgender issues are not your cup of tea, please take your comments elsewhere. If you have constructive, thoughtful ideas, please do post them below.


When did you start thinking about your gender identity?

Ms. Jones:

The conscious questioning began roughly four and a half years ago. I’ll readily admit this shocked me writing it down, I wanted to estimate just two or maybe three years but then I went back to check some dates and discovered it’s really been that long. Honestly, the longer I’ve questioned the further back I can take the subconscious questioning — the disparate feelings and thoughts that never quite tied together in my head, the feelings of not quite fitting in or being “right” somehow. I can trace some of these right back to my earliest memories, but until my recent past none of it made any sense beyond out of place thoughts or feelings that I just shelved away.


What caused you to start thinking about your gender identity?

Ms. Jones:

It’s a two-fold and, in my opinion, strongly ironic answer. The first and main part was freedom to finally be myself. I’d found myself living to the expectations of others for so long that the opportunity to really be introspective and discover who I am never really came to me — in fact it was probably a question I didn’t even consider I needed to answer. I went from fulfilling parental expectations, to meeting the expectations of my romantic partner and trying to live up to the image of an older sibling I looked up to. I progressed through higher education and then fell almost directly to fulfilling my side of a relationship, engagement, then marriage without ever stopping to question if I was really being true to myself. Looking back the hardest part of all of this is that none of the emotions or feelings were faked, but at the same time there was always something hollow within me, a sense of not quite being complete, and a lingering fear of not fulfilling the role society expected of me quite competently enough.

The second part, that fulfils the irony mentioned earlier is that it was from in a subsequent relationship that I was prompted to explore this side of myself. So after espousing the freedom to find myself without the shackles of some parental, societal or relationship based construct — that’s actually what led me here. Go figure. If anything, she was too supportive and our relationship sadly fizzled, due at least in part to my own fears and insecurities — I think she understood me more than I understood myself back then and was years ahead of me in her thinking. When you’ve barely broached the subject of transgenderism and your partner is telling you you are it can be a little scary. I guess it’s just a shame we didn’t meet years later!


Where did you learn about the transgender community?

Ms. Jones:

I didn’t know there was one until very recently. I think my first “contact” with even knowing transgendered people could exist didn’t happen until I was in higher education and that turned into a fascination that I kept secret, basically until now! I never really linked the fascination to the fact that it felt right for me, it was just something that continued to dwell in the periphery of my consciousness, never quite rearing its head but never fully going away.

Molly: Do you know any transgender people?

Ms. Jones:

Right now just a handful. I’ve had wonderful experiences with the very welcoming local PFLAG community that have enabled me to connect with a few transgender people, and learn of a few more who I should talk to. My therapist has also helped lining up people for me to talk to in this regard. At this point it’s still all baby steps for me. It wasn’t until late 2012 that I really came to terms with myself, accepted and overcame the fears I had and acknowledged that this is my life and this is where it’s going.


Do you have support from the transgender community?

Ms. Jones:

I have made an amazing friend who has been incredibly supportive so far, there to point me in the right direction to learn more and also to be someone to listen when I’ve had to vent. I have explored the periphery of a few online communities, but I’m pretty shy in myself at the best of times so putting myself forward is tough. I’m definitely making progress and getting there one step at a time though!


Do you have friends you can talk to about gender identity issues?

Ms. Jones:

I do now!


What name/pronouns would you like me to use when addressing you?

Ms. Jones:

I’ll answer the name part offline since that would like, totally, ruin the veil of anonymity we’ve created here. Definitely feminine pronouns though, however I’m in a very awkward position now being forced to present as male for the forseeable future so I’m totally cool with whatever happens. It cuts a little being male, but the majority of my social interactions and all of my business based interactions will be happening that way for some time to come.


Are there resources you have been accessing to educate yourself about this? Can you recommend any for me?

Ms. Jones:

The few transgender people I know have been amazing resources and have pointed me to many sites online. Three that I have found especially useful on a personal level are, Lynn Conway’s Homepage and Transsexual Roadmap. The last is probably more applicable to me but I’ve always considered any information to be useful as you gain insights into how others view the world too! Beyond that obviously PFLAG. I’m still incredibly early in my transitional journey so at this point I’m sure I have a thousand more things to discover myself, let alone share with others.


Are you safe from harassment?

Ms. Jones:

Bearing in mind my location I would answer most likely not. However, with that being said, at least for the short to medium term I would imagine not. I’m still forced to mostly present publically as male due to work and current social constraints. There is nobody in my immediate vicinity, save for those from PFLAG, who know my true identity. Thankfully we’ve already managed to navigate the possibly muddy waters of meeting randomly in public and how to talk to each other there!


What can I do to better support you at this time?

Ms. Jones:

You’ve been amazing and more than I would have dared ask for so far. This is both a wonderful and incredibly scary journey for me. In myself I truly feel free of depression that has haunted me for goodness knows how long, I can see and feel the spark of hope in life that I’d almost forgotten existed. At this stage understanding, questions, and communication are what I really hope for. I’ve been good at reaching out to tell people so far, but I’m not good at keeping the conversation going, I’m never quite sure if the responses have been positive and nice to placate me so people can just gradually dissociate. So regular reaching out, small talk, conversation, and understanding mean the world to me 🙂


Is there anything I can do to help?

Ms. Jones:

You already are, both with my previous answer, and with the fact you’ve shown enough interest to go through this process with me.

Find Yourself a Tarnished Mormon

I made dinner for several friends this weekend. At the end of the evening, as I cleared away the remains of garlic mash, herb crusted flank steak, tossed Southwest salad, pinot noir and corn bread to make room for the cherry rhubarb cobbler hot from the oven, one of my friends said it occurred to him that tarnished Mormon girls like myself were quite a catch.

She noted that I’d been trained in all the Mormon ways of self-sufficiency, knew how to bake, change a tyre, sew on a button, and all of that other useful stuff that our grannies know how to do but modern people are positively flummoxed by.

However, being a tarnished Mormon girl also means that I’m many years behind my worldly peers in so many ways. While everybody else was at university drinking, shagging, and experiencing life, I was off on my own praying for them and pitying them. I’m so far behind that now I’ve got an unapologetic but please-don’t-tag-me-on-Facebook-my-mother-reads-Facebook enthusiasm for all of those lovely things which were Verboten because they encourage people to think that bodies are engineered for enjoyment, not denial.

It was at this point that my friend surmised that years of repression followed by total unleashing would offer numerous advantages to the unleashee of the tarnished Mormon’s choosing, as in not just loads of sex, but also amazing brownies after.

A male friend present asked if the same thing applied to tarnished Mormon men. I told him that although Mormon men generally receive less training in baking and sewing, many of them will surprise you with their ability to take care of household business, and many of them are uncommonly good cooks. I could not vouch for the “freaky-deakiness” of a tarnished Mormon man, as I have never dated one. Unfortunately, I only dated the self-righteous patriarchal variety that expected me to behave like a Stepford Wife. However, if there are any tarnished Mormon boys out there interested in dating a tall, handsome, and soft-spoken bloke with superb skills at Halo Multiplayer, do let me know.

So there you have it, inhabitants of the Internet. Forget those rubbish dating sites. Find yourself a nice tarnished Mormon and reap the benefits of recent unshackling from sexual repression. And damn good pie.