Now he's just some weirdo that I used to know.
April 18, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

A religious wingnut--who is also a former coworker--sent me a mildly scary email. I don't know how to respond or if I should ignore it. Details inside.

I used to have a coworker who turned to Christ after years of other addictions (not substance related). Over the years we worked together, I watched him go from a friendly, goofy guy to an isolated fanatic who would literally yell out scripture in the street. We weren't terribly close, but it was sad to watch him change. Note: I'm a Christian myself, but not a fundamentalist by any means. So, I say it's sad not because of any negative opinions about religion but because this guy got super effin' weird.

He still works where I used to, but I now live in another state as of a couple of years ago. I'm still friends with other coworkers who have reported strange comments from him in general, sometimes about me. For example, I sent something to my old office for a holiday. When he heard who had sent it, he said, "Oh. God has already spoken to me about her." Uh.

It made me nervous, but it was months ago, and I forgot about it. Until just now, that is, when he emailed me directly to tell me that Jesus would be appearing to me soon - that he had already seen it - and it would change my life.

Now I'm a little worried. This is someone who once confessed to me that he wanted to go to a violent country specifically to be martyred, after all. In fact, he HAS gone to MANY violent locations around the world, but no one's martyred him yet. Basically, I worry that he's just crazy enough to do something. But it's not like he's made any actual threats. He's just a super weird, creepy guy who wears headphones everywhere so that he won't hear any sin.

So my question is: what, if anything, do I do? It looks like he sent this during work hours. Do I mention it to his boss? But then there's the Christian part of me that feels I should show more kindness to him and perhaps respond to him--he's undoubtedly been laughed at a lot. Maybe he needs someone he feels is on the same page to tell him, "Look, bro, I appreciate the heads up, but this kind of message is only going to make people afraid of you, not inspire their faith." Or what if he really is a prophet? I mean, what if I'm about to have a terrible accident and a near-death experience, and I'll be quadriplegic after that but will write an inspirational book or something? Hey, now, don't pretend it wouldn't be at the back of your mind too! Or do I just ignore the whole thing?

Any advice is appreciated, really, but I'd especially love some insight from other people with religious leanings.
posted by Gee, June! to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This... really doesn't sound like a threat. Especially if he's a number of states away. I would just ignore it.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 2:10 PM on April 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is there some kind of scripture which warns people against trusting prophets? Something that would suggest he should question whether the source of those visions is actually from God as opposed to the devil or something? If you don't want to ignore him (which is probably wisest), I'd suggest he think about that scripture, just to get him to question where his visions are from by using language he'd understand.

But ignoring him altogether would be best.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:17 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree it doesn't sound like a threat and I would not respond, but as someone who supervises people, I would like to know if one of my supervisees was doing stuff like this at work. I think you should probably forward it to his boss just to let him/her know that this religious fervor is invading work time (if he/she is not aware of it already).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:17 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't respond to him, but maybe do ask your former coworkers to keep an ear out for any plans to visit your state/area, and to let you know if anything develops.

Maybe also ask them specifically not to give him, or let him find, your street address. Just for good measure.
posted by magdalemon at 2:20 PM on April 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

This is the corner where mental health issues and religion intersect, and engaging is really a job for a qualified professional. There is nothing you can say that is going to result in a positive outcome for either of you.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:21 PM on April 18, 2014 [16 favorites]

You're having a normal response to a stressful interaction. My experience is that the world that fundamentalists live in is often a scary, hard, unforgiving place, and this fellow has decided to share that place with you.

It's normal to feel stressed out about it. But keep in mind that there are a lot of people who are some stripe of fundamentalist in the U.S. and for the most part, they are just people who go about their business. There are a lot of people whose mental illness manifests itself, to them, as a religious experience, and they, too, for the most part don't ever hurt anybody or do anything weirder than share their beliefs with people.

So I think you should listen to your fear, and acknowledge that it is valid, and also understand that the chances he will ever do anything untoward to you are really, really remote. You should be about as prepared for this as you are prepared to encounter a feral dog. Have a look at The Gift Of Fear, but don't let it take up too much of your conscious thought.

FWIW: I was raised by radical, martyrdom-seeking protestant fundamentalists and am ... not that anymore.
posted by gauche at 2:39 PM on April 18, 2014

I knew someone who had dreams that sometimes came true. This person was constantly trying to prove they really were psychic. They would say "I dreamed X and I am sure BLAH will happen to you." I think they were trying to cope somehow, trying to maybe prove to themselves they were not crazy or something. And they just didn't do it in a manner that worked all that well.

No, they were not dangerous. But they were also not traveling to dangerous locales in hopes of being martyred.

I might ask if this impression was a "change your life" in a good way or a bad way since you sound worried about that part. But for the most part my experience is that people making predictions of this sort are looking for confirmation bias and it does not help them find a constructive means to cope with what is in their head. They generally do not want to hear possible scientific explanations for what the imagery in their head might be about. So my first concern would be setting clear boundaries. I might go with something like "If god has a plan for me, then I am in good hands and you can stop worrying about it." I would try to gently signal "butt out" without being too judgmental about their visions. If you don't think you can do that effectively, I would go with just ignore it and don't respond.

(If Joan of Arc were alive today, she would likely be getting her psych meds adjusted to try to quell the voices rather than playing handmaiden to the birth of France. So I try to not be judgy about stuff like that but, yeah, boundaries.)
posted by Michele in California at 2:43 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having dealt with a lot of people over the years in that intersection between religion and mental health problems, no, I don't read this as anything like a threat, but rather that he probably had some kind of dream about you and wanted to be sure you knew the good news. Well-intentioned, in other words, if weird. I find the best responses are usually along the lines of, "I'm glad to hear it, I hope you're keeping me in your prayers, you're definitely in mine, talk to you later," that sort of thing. My church is relatively near the downtown area in its small city, and gets a lot of drop-in visitors of that sort, mostly in the end all they really want is someone to say they care.

The number of people who are probably NOT burdened with mental health problems who I've heard say things like they wish they could move to China to be martyrs is, well, disturbing, but they're really okay people for the most part.

If you were closer, then I'd be all about trying to see if there was some way you could really help him get proper treatment, but when all you've got connection-wise is an email out of the blue, I think it's okay to leave that to other people who know him better, and if you're so inclined, pray that he gets the help he needs.
posted by Sequence at 2:48 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do not respond. Filter his email to go to archive so you don't see it. But, do keep it in case you ever need it as documentation. Block him on social media. Make sure that old coworkers know to never mention you or engage him about you. Beyond that, I wouldn't worry too much about it since he's so physically far away from you.
posted by quince at 2:50 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a Christian. Not sure what kind of Christian you are, but for this guy, "Jesus changing your life" means something like you are going to get a promotion or meet someone who will tell you something insightful about yourself. A desire to be martyred comes from a desire to prove to himself and/or others in a very straightforward way that he's a Christian. Martyring other people is the opposite of that. He doesn't want to harm you.

Mentioning it to his boss seems kind of mean but I would do it if you asked him not to send messages and he kept doing it. There's nothing wrong with asking someone for a heads-up if he's traveling to your area so you can avoid him, either.
posted by michaelh at 2:57 PM on April 18, 2014

I am also a Christian and have plenty of experience associating with Christians who have had some wacky views about how God speaks to people. Although a bit off, this doesn't strike me as anything that you would have to be worrying about, in terms of your safety. It does strike me very much as someone who is new to the faith and is attempting to be serious about a number of things, including being sensitive to a newly perceived spiritual reality, and also the admonition in the Gospels to be willing to give up one's life for the benefit of another. Sometimes the issue of tact and tone needs to be balanced a bit as people are excited to be working out the details of a newly found faith, and patience can go a long way in helping people find that balance.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:33 PM on April 18, 2014

My suggestion would be to ignore it. Perhaps he is dealing with mental health issues, or perhaps he is a sane but scary person... In which case my advice would be bad. But, knowing many extremely conservative Christian, Hindu and Muslim people, to me it sounds like he is a very religious person who is probably picking up the phrases and slangs from his new religious circle and applying them in inappropriate contexts.

Something I noticed as a teen and young adult is that some religious people of deeply fundamentalist backgrounds really play up the conservative and extreme side of their faith as a way to signal compatibility to other potential friends and mates of the same religious group. Interested parties do respond because they understand the "language". To non-members of the faith it seems like weirdness, a form of mental illness, or some sort of social awkwardness.

To impress their peers, find dates, or make friends, some young religiously inclined guys pick up a guitar, go to the gym, buy a cool second hand car, or become super intellectual... And some find religion, with religion being less socially acceptable. Whatever the passion, I think it tends to carry over into adult years but mellows... As for someone like your coworker who discovered it a bit later in life, they are perhaps still in their exciting phase where all is new, so it's probably hard for them to not come on strong- especially if they are receiving encouragement and positive social signals from their religious community.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 3:38 PM on April 18, 2014

Thanks so much for the answers so far, everyone! I do feel a little better. I will say in response to those who feel he may have meant this metaphorically: I know this guy, and when he says he believes Jesus will appear to me soon, he literally means Jesus Himself is going to show up somewhere and talk to me. He also believes he has visions (not just dreams in the night), and the visions can strike him at any time, anywhere. I don't perceive his message as intended to be a threat, but there's a little paranoid part of me that worries he may feel he's meant to facilitate this meeting between the Son of God and me. It's pretty farfetched, though, I agree. I just don't know what to make of his transformation. He was joyful about his new faith at first. By the time I left town, he was sullen and angry all the time and wanted nothing to do with the sinners he felt surrounded him, and yet God, he said, had told him to stay where he was.

Something I noticed as a teen and young adult is that some religious people of deeply fundamentalist backgrounds really play up the conservative and extreme side of their faith as a way to signal compatibility to other potential friends and mates of the same religious group. Interested parties do respond because they understand the "language".

You know, that makes a lot of sense. I know his circle of friends is steadily shrinking. Without going into detail, his fanaticism has cost him a lot in every sense (which he took as a sign he was doing it right). This is all stuff he used to tell me out of the blue, and I don't think he told anyone else at work. So, I wonder if this is really him just reaching out for friendship and possibly validation from someone he feels he can trust?

That's not something anyone can really answer, but there are some interesting viewpoints in this thread that I hadn't considered. So, thanks!
posted by Gee, June! at 3:50 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

He also believes he has visions (not just dreams in the night)

Like Temple Grandin, my oldest son thinks in pictures. When he was maybe 8 years old, he asked me what it meant when things he dreamed came true. I told him I did not know but some people say x and some people say y and other people say z. I suggested he do some reading and draw his own conclusions.

Over the course of many years of reading how brains work, we concluded that most "visions" are not "psychic." They are merely the brain crunching huge amounts of data and spitting it back in picture form because "a picture's worth a thousand words."

I grew up with a lot of baggage on this topic. The person I mentioned above who kept trying to prove to everyone they really dreamed the future is my mother. I grew up with really scary, horrible ideas about what it meant to dream things of this sort. But most predictive dreams or even waking visions are metaphorical and symbolic. It is rare for them to be like a TV film of the coming event. So I am inclined to think that the metaphorical visions are just your brain thinking in pictures. Maybe the TV film style visions really are a glimpse of the future but those are very much the exception.

It is relatively comforting for me personally to conclude that once in a while, my brain briefly thinks in pictures, the way my son's brain does all the time, and I am not simply crazy and I am also not doomed to some dire fate and blah blah blah. It has helped my own emotional and mental health enormously to have a scientific explanation for what used to be a super scary personal experience.

So I have some sympathy for your concerns and I also have sympathy for your former friend's experiences. But I doubt you can help him see this as "a flash of insight from the same part of his brain which produces dreams, probably only predictive in the way that Weathermen predict the weather, and most likely not a psychic phenomenon from god." But that is mostly how I view it and it no longer seems creepy or scary to me -- even though I also have known people and have personally had experiences that seem to defy this sciency explanation, still most such experiences seem readily explained by this view of it.

But I actively sought out skeptical feedback from sciency people who were not merely disrespectful and dismissive of me. But most sciency people are just disrespectful and dismissive of such experiences and of people who think that god may be talking to them or otherwise believe in something "woo", which I think gives most people with weird, unexplained experiences no path out of their interpretation that "god is talking to me" and that sort of thing. And I am not trying to knock religion here, I am just saying they get painted into a corner socially because you can either go get some kind of confirmation from people who also think god is talking to you or you can get sciency people to spit in your face and call you crazy and, gee, that's not much of a choice.

So that is why I suggest you focus on setting boundaries and try to not disrespect his visions. This is something really happening in his mind and he has no other explanation except "God is talking to me." Suggesting he see a mental health professional amounts to calling him crazy and implies that what he is experiencing as very real is not actually real, it is a hallucination. And that is such a terrifying thing to live with -- to not be sure what's real and what's not, to be unable to trust the things in your own head. So I think trying to tell him he needs a mental health professional is potentially dangerous. It could provoke him. He could feel a strong need to prove you wrong or something. I also don't think it is in any way necessary to resolve this.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:11 PM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

He either has some mental health issues or he is in a church group that is dysfunctional.

Look, I do believe in dreams and visions and things as a Charismatic Christian, but what you describe seems more flaky than anything else. Could be he just needs to be in a healthier congregation, could be that his brain chemistry is not hitting on all cylinders.

I wouldn't necessarily be worried about it, but I would pay attention on the off chance that if he is ill it could get worse.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:14 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think this guy is not primarily a religious fanatic; I think he is more likely to be a schizophrenic whose delusions have religious content.

A 2002 study which looked at a couple of hundred people who were admitted to the hospital for their schizophrenia found that 24% had religious delusions, and that these patients were sicker than other schizophrenics.

It's interesting that he seeks martyrdom, considering that schizophrenics with religious delusions are apparently more likely to harm themselves, and I also wonder whether the headphones he wears "everywhere so that he won't hear any sin" aren't really to drown out the voices typical of paranoid schizophrenia.

If he is a schizophrenic, I think that does make him more likely to become a problem for you, but ignoring and deflecting as much as possible (as others have suggested) still seems like the best plan.
posted by jamjam at 4:40 PM on April 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Just so you know, it's common for the age of onset of schizophrenia in males is late teens through mid twenties and tapers off from there.

Also religious messages can easily amplify wierdness. Based on the church things can be normalized or stigmatized. Honestly I'd just stay far far away and ignore it.

If he is schizophrenic any response may have delusional meanings that his mind makes up.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:16 PM on April 18, 2014

Do you know if he had any ill will toward you? If he liked you or saw you as a fellow Christian, it's probably not a threat but some weird feeling that something good will happen to you, like God will bless you in some way. I would definitely think about whether your address was attached to what you sent to the office, if anyone had given him your info and warn your co-workers to let you know if he is coming to your area.

But this sounds like a guy with kooky believes who believes God will do things. I don't think this means he will be doing anything. It's like the weirdos who think God is going to flood the U.S. because of gay marriage. They don't go out and kill gay people, they just keep waiting for God to flood the America. Because they are nuts.

He definitely has mental health issues and it's best you try to stay out of the picture with his as much as possible. I do wonder how he has managed to keep his job.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:05 PM on April 18, 2014

My primary advice is to ignore it.

My secondary advice is to forward it to either HR or someone you know and trust to be discreet at the old office. I'm worried about his mental health -- saying he wants to be martyred and then going to places where that could actually happen is maybe a high risk of harm to himself? If you really feel you must do something, approach it from a self-harm perspective, but again, my primary advice is to ignore it.

Sometimes I'm stupid, I'd probably forward it to someone to try to get him some help.
posted by mibo at 6:15 PM on April 18, 2014

PS. For reference I was raised in a fairly fundamental, evangelical, end-of-the-world, self-sufficient religion that attracts a good amount of weirdos, but there would almost certainly have still been some intervention if someone declared a desire to die a martyr and then went of to violent country where he could be killed.
posted by mibo at 6:17 PM on April 18, 2014

"...but there's a little paranoid part of me that worries he may feel he's meant to facilitate this meeting between the Son of God and me."

If that's your main worry, then just write him back and let him know that he was right, Jesus DID appear and you had a good chat about [whatever]. Then he would no longer feel that he needs to facilitate anything because his vision already came true.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:02 PM on April 18, 2014

This reminds me of a situation where a good friend of mine became the center of an elaborate delusional CIA conspiracy of another acquaintance of mine. The two had only met once, and they met through me and it was years later that I became aware of what was going on in this acquaintance of mine's head (and my good friend never found out). It turned out this acquaintance was bipolar as hell and desperately needed psychiatric attention.

It's not necessarily the fringe religious stuff that gives me the willies, it's that you are someone who is not close to this person in the real world, and the fact that you are occupying a rather important place in his thoughts that seems inappropriate and a sign of possible mental illness.

It's not clear to me what your response should be based on the information you've given. I'm not hearing anything that is threatening at this point. Delusional thoughts sometimes are dissipated a little when someone is confronted by reality, in which case a casual response might be helpful. Like, if you are conspicuously ignoring him, then the delusion could take a more disturbing turn or take on more significance. If he's someone you might see socially, or are Facebook friends, or share friends with, a quick "Thanks for your prayers, take care of yourself" should be ok. But if you have literally no other social connection with him, responding to him will only encourage future inappropriate contact and I would ignore him. If he's more persistent or things get more threatening, I would politely let him know how his emails are making you feel and please stop. (I would unfriend him on facebook or block his emails, or whatever you need to do at this point). If it continues, then attach consequences and get others involved.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:32 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm agnostic, so maybe I'm not the best person to answer this, but I have a couple suggestions anyways. Is this something you can talk to your pastor or other trusted religious leader about? I grew up in a pretty fundamentalist town, and a lot of people attended Wednesday Bible study groups (even as adults). Is this something you could bring up there? I have a friend who is a minister, and if something like this happened to me, I would ask her about it since I would assume she'd know more about it (and I know she's had training on how to help people). In any case, good luck. I would be really weirded out but that might just be because I didn't have a lot of positive interactions with strongly fundamentalist Christians while I was growing up, so it's hard for me to separate my own knee jerk reaction from a real "hmm, this sounds like trouble" reaction.
posted by RogueTech at 9:45 PM on April 18, 2014

Ignore. Period. Definitely do NOT get into theological discussions/debates with this delusional punk. Repeat: ignore, ignore, ignore.
posted by telstar at 11:24 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

My guess is he sees his visions as good things, but also feels isolated. He may be hoping you'll have a vision because he wishes good things for you, plus he might want to not be the only one having visions.

The sane thing in the modern age is to figure that you'll only see Jesus when you die, or if you do see him before then to only tell a mental health professional.

But this guy is marinating in ancient scripture, so he is probably thinking of something like Jacob's ladder (Jacob saw God and God told him he and his descendants would be blessed forever) or the road to Emmaus (some people walked with a stranger and invited him to dinner, and then realized it was Jesus).

I would try to hear the good wishes and the loneliness behind it. I would send him a nice note about how blessed you feel to be living in your new location (with no specifics), life is good, you're exactly where God wants you, and maybe reminisce a little about something fun from your old workplace (that just happens to be from a time before he got weird).
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:34 AM on April 19, 2014

I would strongly urge that you not respond - if he literally thinks he sees Jesus that's well over the line into mental illness and you cannot predict how his illness will evolve.
posted by winna at 10:22 AM on April 19, 2014

I am not super comfortable with some of the comments here saying he's definitely mentally ill. My mom is not a whack job, she's just someone who routinely "knew" in advance that something was going to happen and didn't have a good model for how to relate to that and kept looking for validation and just didn't find a good way to get the validation she craved. Other than that personal quirk, she's very practical, down to earth, etc. She's also not religious and was not saying she was speaking for god -- she just was wrestling with something she didn't have a good explanation for.

I also sometimes "know" in advance or have a sense of things but I have access to the internet and I found explanations for my knowing in advance that allow me to chalk most of it up to brain processes which analyze data in the background and spit back an answer to a question you didn't know you had. I felt pretty crazy back when I didn't have a good explanation for these experiences. But I no longer think that having predictive dreams or even "visions" (flashes of imagery in my head while awake) is some kind of crazy. Humans have been doing dream interpretation and having "visions" for thousands of years. Different cultures have different ways of interacting with the phenomenon.

But even if he is seriously mentally ill, how you interact with him can make a big difference in how he behaves. There is lots of evidence of that. If you haven't seen this fpp, I highly recommend you (the OP) read it: It is about a town that boards mentally ill people with families in order to help normalize their lives. Reading it might help you feel more okay about dealing with this guy.

I am not suggesting you have any responsibility to try to help this guy be more normal or be more okay with his issues. I am just saying that you do not necessarily have to be afraid of him even if he is crazy. It sounds like he might self harm but he doesn't sound dangerous to others. And you can just refuse to engage the crazy stuff. You can focus on things you have in common -- like a belief in god -- and focus on enforcing healthy boundaries in some manner. How you handle it can make him less crazy in the way he interacts with you as an individual, even if he is pretty far off the deep end. And on the other side, dealing with him like he's a whack job can help push him over the edge. I would not be personally comfortable with doing that to anyone but even if one doesn't care about the welfare of others, enlightened self interest suggests that it is in one's best interest to avoid doing that. Interacting as calmly as possible without going there helps minimize the odds of you becoming a target if he does just lose his shit.

The last thing I will say: Most dreams and visions are self referential. Other people in dreams are typically not really themselves, they are typically symbols with personal meaning for the person having the dream or vision. So you (someone from his past, whom he once worked with) likely symbolize something to him and that is most likely why you are showing up in his visions. But he doesn't know how to relate to it that way and seems to have a choice between feeling crazy, which is a not good feeling, and feeling like he is a special person whom god talks with regularly, which may be hard for others to relate to but it at least is some kind of positive spin on events he has no control over.
posted by Michele in California at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not an expert on schizophrenia, but this doesn't strike me as that. To me, it seems like another addiction for him. It's his crazy level of obsession with it that makes it scary to me. But I gave his message some time to sink in, and I really think he meant for the best now--thanks, everyone, for the different take on this whole thing.

He never approved of my more liberal views, but I don't think his disapproval is enough to target me. I don't like that I'm still in his thoughts, but again--I think there may be some loneliness there, and I'm probably not the only person he's reached out to. I mean, the guy reads the Bible out loud in the street, so it's not like he keeps his thoughts to himself.

Anyway, against some of the advice to ignore him, I did reply. I told him that it was good to hear from him, that I hope he's well, and that Jesus had been working in my life lately... my hope being that maybe he'll reconsider such a literal take on these so-called visions of his. I feel I could probably ignore him from this point forward if he says anything strange because I did at least give him the opportunity to say hello in his own weird way.
posted by Gee, June! at 1:52 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good luck, but let's not forget who described him as a "weirdo" in the post title.
posted by telstar at 12:39 AM on April 20, 2014

I did indeed, telstar, and a weirdo he is. It's just that I'm seeing there's probably some explanation to that weirdness now.
posted by Gee, June! at 7:55 AM on April 20, 2014

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