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She chased 'ego death' — first in religion, then in parenthood

Jia Tolentino talks about God and psychedelics and finding comfort in chaos.
Elena Mudd
Jia Tolentino talks about God and psychedelics and finding comfort in chaos.

Don't tell my children this, but I wasn't always sold on the idea of having kids. I grew up in a really religious, conservative town in Idaho. A lot of kids from my high school went to a local college where people half-joked that most of the girls were pursuing their "M-R-S" degree. Where I was from, college was where you met your husband — and if you got an education along the way, well, hey, that's a great example to set for all the kids you're going to have!

That wasn't me. I wanted out of that place. I wanted to see the world and be uncomfortable and get lost and find my way again and fall in and out of love. And I did all those things. And it was intoxicating. For the most part, I did whatever I wanted. I moved from city to city — sometimes from country to country. I called my own shots. I made my own mistakes and owned up to them and didn't ask a lot from other people. I was the center of my own life and by the time I was in my early thirties, I was sick of myself.

I felt this deep, almost primal need to take myself out of the spotlight of my own making. I didn't want to kill my ego (an expression that will come up a little later) but I did want to give it the kind of flesh wound that would force it onto the bench for a while so I could suss out a different way of living. I wanted all the things I had never prioritized. I didn't just want a stable, intimate relationship – I wanted a spouse – a person I was spiritually and legally bound to. And I wanted kids and all the joy and wonder, chaos and heartbreak that raising children can bring. I no longer saw marriage and parenting as social expectations set up to annihilate my identity. Instead, I saw them as opportunities to sink deeply into a less selfish, more ethical version of myself. And to push the outer bounds of what it means to love.

Where am I going with all this? This is my way of telling you why I connected so much with the conversation I had recently with Jia Tolentino. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and I've followed her writing for a long time. She's the daughter of Filipino immigrants who ended up in Houston, Texas as devout members of an evangelical megachurch.

I wanted to talk with Tolentino for this series because she has such a nuanced perspective on her religious upbringing and her subsequent rejection of that belief system. And even though she just had her second child, she has also felt ambivalent about parenting in earlier chapters of her life.

But wait, you say, I don't want to listen to a story about having kids! I don't blame you – I don't either! Trust me, this is anything but. It's about the power of ego. It's about the ecstasy of transcendence. It's about God and psychedelics and finding comfort in chaos. See for yourself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jia Tolentino: I'm still theoretically ambivalent on the decision to have children, but I'm so glad now. I'm really glad.

Rachel Martin: Why? What's good about it? I know that seems obvious, but what specifically?

Tolentino: I think I was hungry for ego death in general and I have sought experiences of ego death in various capacities in my life. In psychedelic drugs, in music, in art, but mostly in drugs.

Martin: Explain what that means to you, ego death.

Tolentino: I grew up extremely religious and I think that was one of the things that kept me religious for so long was the experience of sublimating the ego to a sense of the divine. You would get it occasionally in prayer. I would get it often in this giant church that I was raised in. It was the kind of church where the pastor's face is on billboards throughout the highway and the sermons are broadcast on TV every Sunday and the worship center, as it was called, was three stories high and sat, I think, five to six thousand people. I think it had the largest pipe organ in the state of Texas.

I liked accessing this certain part of myself, when I could feel the boundaries of myself dissolving and I could feel myself as part of this nebulous collective. And that always came with some sort of access point to mystery and some sort of access point to fear, but also love and connection. You get that in church, you get that with this backdrop of salvation and damnation and pouring out your love to God and God pouring out love back to you and supplication, all these things.

As I stopped believing in God, and stopped certainly believing in any sort of idea of God that was taught to me within a Christian framework, I started to seek that experience of the boundaries of the self dissolving in drugs and in music and lots of dark rooms where people felt the boundaries of the self go away. It felt good for me whenever I would have those experiences of ego death or ego dissolution.

Jia Tolentino says she has sought a feeling of deep connectedness ever since she was a young girl in Houston, Texas attending an evangelical megachurch.
/ Jia Tolentino
Jia Tolentino
Jia Tolentino says she has sought a feeling of deep connectedness ever since she was a young girl in Houston, Texas attending an evangelical megachurch.

Martin: Accessing those parts of your consciousness through psychedelics, through those kinds of experiences, did that fill that void that leaving religion had left?

Tolentino: The thing is, I don't think there was a void. And that was one thing that I was suspicious about. You know, I was like, "Jia, you really rationalized this all a little too cleanly." You know? I found sources in other things. I found sources of God in other things. Although going back and rereading my journals, it was not quite as smooth of a transition as I thought it was. I did have a year or two where I was really kind of turgid with thoughts about what it meant that I was maybe not a Christian anymore, but it felt like there had not been a void left.

I felt enough access in my life to spaces of transcendence and to submission and to, like, ethical inquiry, these things that I wanted and still want and learned through religion. I've never found a shortage of paths towards those things. My parents are still religious, and sometimes I think about the comfort that real religious faith gives people. This real trust in a divine will. I don't have that whatsoever. But I actually think maybe that was a reason that I drifted this way. I don't want that comfort. It has been better for me to have no trust in a plan or a path or anything. I think I'm better off operating as if the absence of supervision is all that we have.

Martin: Because it puts the onus on you and that is OK.

Tolentino: And I think it's bracing and enlivening and kind of scarier in a good way.

Martin: Yeah. How does that jibe with your efforts to dissolve your ego? Because I wrestled with this myself. If there is nothing and it's us, right, and we have all the agency and we create the meaning and we divine the sacred spaces, because we just decide that they are, that feels like building up the ego, not sublimating

Tolentino: I think in some aspects it does. To some extent, sure, it feels like you are constructing a sort of self-based universe. But it's never really building your own, there's always other traditions or ethics that you find. But I still feel like the actual experiences of those things, they're still cracking at the ego.

So I had my first kid in August 2020. The experiences of that ego dissolution, they've happened so often in these experiences with my child. They happened in birth itself, this incredibly shocking event where you are nothing but a vessel. And it's this shocking moment of revelation and this twinning of life and death and that felt divine in a real way, in a bloody and terrifying way. The way that transcendence is always paired with terror.

One thing that I found sad about having a kid is that my natural ecstatic inclinations, which used to spike really high all the time, don't really anymore. I feel like I've been trickled out a million times a day in tiny ways. And so I no longer have these big reserves, like when I would be walking around in New York City and just feel overcome with a sense of transcendence. Like, I don't have that anymore.

It feels like I'm meteing it out every day on my children. And that honestly feels like one of the biggest, most fundamental changes to my life since having a kid. I mean, I can still access those emotions, certainly, but they don't come as often and as intensely and it's probably just getting older and not having hours to just walk around at golden hour, you know, like those are the peak indoor chaos hours in my home now.

Martin: Right. Does that feel like a grief to you or just a change?

Tolentino: I feel a little bit of grief about it, but I also think it feels right. It also feels entirely correct to this stage of life. Which is something that I've been telling myself, that I'm deep in this right now. I have a nine-week-old and a three-year-old. And I've been reminding myself that three years from now, this will be an entirely different phase. I think that I'll have more shifts in the way these issues manifest to me as time goes on. I think death will come to play a larger part in it as time goes on, and I think my sense of independent experience certainly will shift again, hopefully shift dramatically in the next 10 years so that I'll start having more of them.

Martin: There's a short supply right now. Yeah. To just be really basic about it, you see a spiritual component of parenting?

Tolentino: Yeah. The primary way that I think about the biggest sweep of all the stuff that we're talking about, let's be real, it's still drugs. Last summer, I had finished breastfeeding and I went to Montana with one of my best friends for three days and we went hiking and then we did acid. She's like a born and bred downtown New York girl and staunch atheist. And she had this moment, it was overpoweringly beautiful and also we were on acid, and she was like, "How is it that we're alive at the same time as each other and as all this beauty." She was like, "I feel so scared and I feel so grateful."

We're both starting to cry and I said, "Girl, this is why people believe in God." I'm reminded in those moments that now what I understand as the closest analog to God is the fact that the laws of physics and biology create a world that begets life, human and non-human. And I understand the framework of the devil as the competing forces of entropy.

At some point in college, I was like, OK, this thing that I understood as God, creation and destruction, is basically just whatever laws of physics are knitting this world together. I locate some sense of that spiritual wonder in that. There's a shimmer of the divine around just the fact of our existence. And so in that way, my understanding of spirituality has bloomed to an inhuman scale, and then it has shrunk to the labor of taking care of a brand new life and the small moments of mystery and the unknown and also fear and desperation that that experience brings you.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.