How losing my faith helped me discover ‘betterhood’

Essy Knopf belief faith betterhood
Reading time: 5 minutes

During my first independent trip abroad at age 21, I agreed to my mother’s request to make a stopover in the Baháʼí holy land in Haifa, Israel. 

I began my pilgrimage at the Shrine of Baháʼu’lláh, on the outskirts of the Acre.

Emerging from a sherut—a minivan taxi—I was ushered along the pebbled path, past rows of cypresses, towards a stately mansion with an air of quiet repose.

The path ended at an elegantly carved oak door, a view I had glimpsed countless times in the front page of prayer books bearing the irreverent scrawls of my three-year-old self.

But once I was within the Shrine and kneeling on the carpeted floor, I found myself desperately trying to conjure a flame of faith.

Here I was, at the symbolic center of the Baháʼí Faith; the point of devotion towards which all Baháʼí’s turned during prayer. 

The Shrine was the final resting place of the prophet Baha’u’llah, who had been tortured, imprisoned, banished, and betrayed in the name of his Faith.

What right did I have then to feel as I did, like a gourd carved clean of its meat and left to fester in the sun?

Just who was I to squander this chance to connect with the Transcendent on His home turf?

Yet for all my knowledge of the spiritual ocean that surrounded me, for all its lapping at the walls of anger around my heart, I was not yet willing to surrender them. 

For I had built these defenses, brick by painful brick, against the cruel vagaries of life. They had served as sole protection against the frightening, unpredictable world beyond.

And yet they had also kept me in a kind of half-life, an open-eyed slumber from which I now struggled to wake.

Essy Knopf faith
The Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel.

Losing my faith

From a young age, I was stricken by a profound sense of grief. It was as if both my parents, who were alive and well, had died.

Their assurances of love seemed only that—a kind of parental lip service I feared may not be true.

The closeness and understanding I craved I knew could never be possible. For a vast unnamable gulf stood between us, a gulf born of misattunement and intergenerational trauma.

The belief in my own inherent unlovability was the first of many unexplainable secrets I carried with me into my adulthood.

Then there was the fact that I forever felt like the odd one out. School classrooms were a sensory overload prison. A background hum of social anxiety pervaded each day.

My need to escape drove me away from people and into rumination. I took up residence inside inner worlds of data collection and categorization. 

Unsurprisingly, the resulting isolation made me easy pickings for the schoolyard birds of prey.

It would not be until after my 26th birthday that I’d receive an explanation, in the form of a diagnosis with Asperger syndrome. The upheaval this would bring, however, was still many years away.

The third secret involved a brother who in my teen years came to rule our home with his fists, baldfaced lies, and crocodile tears.

When my brother “disappeared” first my CD player, then my pet parrot, my parents did not so much as speak. For what could be said to appease this neverending rage that drove my sibling-turned-stranger to break windows and blacken eyes?

After too many years of handling a searing lump of coal with kid gloves, my parents bandaged their hands and retreated into silence.

My family, once as solid and seemingly invulnerable as an iceberg, ruptured, individual pieces carried slowly away by the currents of unresolved tensions.

We drifted, until at last, one final conflict forced us completely apart. At age 17, I came out as gay to my parents.

Mom and dad’s response was curiously devoid of emotions, but their fear and resulting anger were all too clear.

It was a burden I could not—would not carry. I packed my bags and left, fleeing into solitary adulthood, into the false comforts of workaholism.

For a decade, I made film after film and wrote novel after novel. I collected degrees, notching my belt until there were more holes than leather. 

I wandered through a kind of phantom existence, forever evading the seemingly unspeakable facets of my past, secretly resenting my Maker for His apparent role in predestination.

Soon, however, everything I had fought so hard to keep buried resurfaced. The three secrets I had been born in silence took physical shape as anxiety, depression, and a digestive ailment I would later discover was irritable bowel syndrome.

Essy Knopf faith
Carefully tended gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa.

A ‘world of illusion’

The Baháʼí writings tell us that we live in a “world of illusion”, a “mirage rising over the sands”.

Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advises us to abandon our attachment to this world, warning that “the repose it proffereth only weariness and sorrow”. 

The Baháʼí writings explain that calamities and afflictions—whether of our own creation or the will of the Almighty—are a crucible for spiritual refinement.

Our difficult experiences, we are counseled, only offer proof of the necessity of spurring the mortal world; remind us to focus our energies instead on service to humanity, and preparation for a spiritual afterlife.

But to the walking wounded, promises “of blissful joy, of heavenly delight”, of an exalted station in some “celestial Paradise” are only that: words.

Heaven emerges from the Baháʼí writings only as a half-sketched marvel in the far margins of human comprehension; insubstantial balm for very real pain. 

Any surprises then that my ego rebelled against the writings, rejecting the idea that I should find contentment in God’s apparent will; in treading the “path of resignation”.

And yet I what was my ego, except a result of the mortal condition—a condition without which my suffering as well simply would not exist.

The turning point

For a decade, I found myself theologically adrift, tethered to the Baháʼí Faith by the thinnest cord of belief, yet clinging to it all the same.

Then at age 30, the grief crescendoed and I found myself at a crossroads. I could remain where I was and be crushed by the tangled accrual of trauma, or I could begin cutting myself free.

I chose the latter, undertaking therapy, exploring books on spirituality and self-betterment, and committing to daily meditation.

Frozen emotions thawed. Long-suppressed grief flowed. And an informal truce was struck, the cold war between religious obligation and bitter experience drawing to a quiet close.

I found myself once more seeking solace in the Baháʼí writings, reciting prayers that were always met with silence. 

And yet…there was always a kind of answer to be found in the immediate calm that followed; in the finding of unexpected composure.

Essy Knopf faith
Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts in Haifa, Israel.

From faith to ‘betterhood’

My return to the arena of life was not as a man garbed in the armor of blind faith. 

For as a compassionate being, I could not help but continue to question the suffering that defines the human condition. 

Still, as one who has suffered and saw survived, I no longer saw the words of prophets and other luminaries as simply indifferent and tone-deaf. 

Rather, they carry a certain charge. They offer consolation. Like swatches of color in a monochrome world, they offer a vision of “betterhood”.

Betterhood inspires hope. It propels us towards a higher calling. Betterhood is what I credit for leading me to advocate for others, through documentary filmmaking and the social work profession.

Today, the million dissenting voices of doubt remain as present as ever. The dialogue between the instinct to resist and the desire to surrender to some higher power continues.

But it is a dialogue that needs not end. To question is fundamentally human. And it is the necessary preface to true belief.

Five alternatives to gay dating apps

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 8 minutes

During my time using gay dating apps, I’ve had several experiences that left me questioning my continued use.

Rarely do they involve something as dramatic as a blow-up or a betrayal. Rather, they usually are the culmination of a thousand cuts.

Many of the people I have interacted with seem paralyzed by choice, requests for emotional availability, and the possibility of commitment. Those lacking in self-awareness will often resort to sabotaging a possible relationship, if only to avoid decision or perceived danger.

The most common form of sabotage is the mixed message: a man claiming to want one thing while indulging in behaviors that ran counter to it. “Looking for dates”, the dating app bio will read, “but open to everything else”.

Should someone make an earnest attempt at courtship, that same man would sooner skirt complications altogether by embracing the easy and “safer” alternative of casual sex.

I first met Rayan* online during college. Years after our first date, he reemerged on Tinder, enthusiastically requesting we meet again.

While I had enjoyed Rayan’s company the first time, I’d felt that our lifestyles and interests were somewhat out of sync. Still, I figured there was no harm in giving it another shot.

We spent the first few minutes of our second date bringing each other up to speed on how our lives had changed in the intervening years, talking broadly about our dating experiences. Rayan expressed frustration about the difficulty of finding someone willing to take the time to get to know him.

About an hour into our conversation, he invited me back to his place for tea. But when we got there, Rayan’s initially chivalrous interest faltered. “Tea”, as it turned out, was a euphemism.

Feeling uncomfortable, I reiterated my intention to date, then noted it was getting late and that I really needed to get home. A conciliatory Rayan offered to walk me to my bus stop and I agreed.

While stopped at a pedestrian crossing, he raised the subject of arranged marriages. In what I can only guess was an appeal to our shared Middle Eastern heritage, Rayan spoke of relatives who would serve as matchmakers to heterosexual bachelors, and lamented the absence of equivalent services for gay men.

“Sometimes I wish I had an auntie who would find me a man to marry,” Rayan told me.

“I wouldn’t have any say in it. She’d choose and that would be it. We’d just have to make it work.”

Rayan laughed at the wistful impracticality of such an arrangement. Yet it seemed to me that for all his facetiousness, part of him meant what he had said.

Rayan’s desire for the implied simplicity of an arranged marriage was understandable, and yet both of us knew this was not something most gay men would ever realistically settle for. Accustomed to the sea of options offered by gay dating apps, to sacrifice those options for many would represent a considerable loss.

The fact Rayan had floated such an alternative to modern dating while on a date struck me as evidence enough of this. What on the surface it was a throwaway joke, it also felt like an offhanded dismissal of my attempts to get to know him.

Rayan over the span of our encounter had gone from stressing he wanted to date, to propositioning me for sex, to lamenting the difficulties of dating – a series of contradictory actions I suspect most people would struggle to decipher.

Like many men I have dated, Rayan either did not know what he truly really wanted, or feared admitting it and sticking to his guns.

When confronted with the emotional danger of being authentic, Rayan had resorted to humor as a defense mechanism, trying to create distance from that perceived danger.

The problem of gay dating apps

Those of us regularly exposed to the toxic environment of gay dating apps are intimately acquainted with the push-pull of wanting more, but fearing what that might entail.

We know it not only just by our own internal experience, but by the inconsistency of our dates who are hampered by the same contrary desires.

It is true that where it comes to building relationships, gay dating apps pose a number of fundamental challenges.

Previously I’ve noted how these apps can create an unhealthy dependence, asking us to engage in inauthentic behavior, while keeping us locked in a perpetual search and encouraging us to trivialize both ourselves and others.

At the heart of the current gay dating app crisis is a fundamental shift in our orientation from seeking connection and being focused and purpose-driven, to seeking entertainment, distraction and being opportunistic.

The gamified reward system used by these apps tempts many of us into adopting such a stance, thus undermining our search for wholesome, meaningful relationships.

The promise that gay dating apps will economize our time and effort may lead us down a downwards spiral of risk aversion, leaving us less willing to take a chance on others, even if all that involves is the price of a coffee and an hour of our time. 

The illusion of always being connected offered by text-based communication may also allow us to temporarily stave off loneliness while creating conditions that ironically feed that same isolation.

Text-based communication is also designed with personal convenience in mind, enabling us to effortlessly retouch our self-presentation, while avoiding situations that necessitate vulnerability, which is crucial to forming connections. 

gay dating apps

The antidote

Not that long ago, dating apps were seen as a somewhat unsavory fringe alternative to traditional dating. 

Now, in an uncanny inversion of roles, they have become the new norm, with real-life for many gay men assuming the title of “alternative” – for which we can find any number of excuses.

The bar and club scene? Not quite your jam. A matchmaking service? An unnecessary expense. Gay hobby groups? Too much of a commitment.

But to end our seemingly interminable search for an ideal partner, we must be willing to abandon the ease and comfort of text-based communication and truly invest in others.

In order to forge authentic relationships, we must give up the immediate gratification of texting and allow ourselves to risk vulnerability,

What I am advocating here is not a complete flight from text-based communication. Nor am I suggesting seeking out matchmakers or arranged relationships. Neither promise a true end to the crisis of choice that is modern dating.

What this crisis calls for, rather, is a return to basics. Namely, the crucial art of making and building friendships.

Don’t date. ‘Friend’

Friendship is the foundation of any sound romantic relationship. It does not carry the same emotional risks as gay dating, nor the ambiguity of app-based interactions. It facilitates not a dropping of boundaries and headlong plunge into sexual relations, but the slow and steady building of rapport and trust.

It stands to reason, therefore, that those of us seeking to date should make it our number one priority. We must be willing to shift our outlook from the limited confines of seeking a sex partner or significant other that ticks all the boxes, to the endless horizon of friendships.

How do we form friendships? Former FBI agent Jack Schafer offers the following formula in his book The Like Switch: Friendship = proximity x frequency x duration x intensity (PFDI)

Schafer defines proximity as being close to the subject in question. Frequency is relational to the number of times you’ve been in contact. Duration is the amount of time you spend together. Intensity measures how much you are able to satisfy others’ needs through your actions.

So, what are some settings that are conducive to PFDI?

1. Hobby groups

A hobby group or sporting group is the perfect PFDI nexus. They connect you to a community of like-minded people (proximity), and they give you an excuse to regularly gather with others (frequency, duration) to participate in a shared interest (intensity). 

You can find an array of options on Google, Meetup.com, or social media. If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, you could try establishing your own community. Setting up a group on Meetup.com, for example, is easy enough, although it does involve recurring fees.

2. Online communities

Online communities organized around a common interest can also provide regular relationship-building opportunities. This is presuming they are, again, gay-oriented and regularly organize in-person meetups in your town or city. 

One possible place to look for these is on Reddit.

3. Meditation or spiritual groups

Shared values are a great basis for connecting with other people. 

Whether you are dabbling in mindfulness, practicing yoga, or were raised with a religion that remains near and dear to your heart, chances are you’ll find there is already a gay community that shares your practices and is waiting to embrace you with open arms.

4. Talks, presentations or conferences

Find a talk or attend a conference that aligns with your interests. If it is gay-themed, all the better. 

You will stand a better chance of making friends if you attend after-event drinks, networking mixers and bar crawls.

5. Volunteering

If you’re not comfortable putting yourself out there, volunteering – particularly for an LGBT-related cause – is a great way to meet other mindful individuals just like yourself.

Not only will you be doing a valuable service for your local community, but you’ll also be putting your values into practice. This is an incredibly effective way to reinforce your sense of self-worth. 

People who are confident in this sense tend to be more attractive to others, thus further improving your chances of meeting someone.

Watch out for the toxic trio

Whatever you choose to do, remember to avoid gatherings that replicate the dynamic of gay dating apps.

Be on the lookout for what I call the toxic trio: objectification, judgmentalism, and competition.

These three things are to friendship what concrete is to grass, suffocating any possibility of growth.

Some sports leagues, for example, can produce an unhealthy atmosphere of competitiveness, in which you may feel compelled to constantly prove your athletic ability and in turn your personal worth. Should you fail to measure up, you may face subtle and even overt forms of exclusion and judgment. Hardly the kind of environment that is conducive to friendship.

Depending on the kind of social gathering, you may get the vibe that other attendees are less focused on connection than they are cruising. A common telltale of this is what I call the “wandering gayze”, in which the person you’re talking to looks over your shoulder, constantly scanning the room for better-looking prospects. 

The wandering gayze is the scourge of many an interaction between gay men. It sends a very clear message to one’s conversation partner that their value as a person is pending review.

Besides being a covert form of judgmentalism, the wandering gayze indicates that this person has an agenda, even if that agenda is simply to keep “trading up”. No one should ever feel forced to fight for another person’s attention or respect.

gay dating apps alternatives

Keep an open mind

Always being on the lookout for the next best thing is counterintuitive to the dating process. Should you find yourself falling prey to the wandering gayze, you should remember that your goal here is to build connections based on mutual interests and camaraderie.

For these to be possible, you should approach these groups and events with an open mind, rather than a specific motive. Of course, your end goal may be a romantic relationship, but being too fixated on the goal closes you off to possibilities.

Strict adherence to a nonnegotiable shopping list is one reason gay dating apps feel so sterile. By remaining open-minded, you will be avoiding squeezing every interaction into a predefined box.

Instead, you are granting yourself permission to freely engage in a sharing of self through conversation, laughter, and flirtation; to let down your guard and be vulnerable. And vulnerability is where the magic ultimately happens

In joining one of these groups, you may not find a life partner. But you will likely build rich, rewarding friendships that increase the possibility of further introductions. 

Remember that you are playing the long game. You are investing in other people in the hopes they will in turn invest in you.

This may feel like a somewhat inefficient, if not risky process. In abandoning the pretense we employ while texting, we may say or do the wrong thing. We will likely face pressures and discomforts we might have otherwise avoided, had we remained behind our phone screen.

What we won’t do, however, is leave these encounters empty-handed. Given the right company, we’ll instead walk away with the warm glow of a fun conversation, a shared joke, or an exchanged smile.

And after so much time spent in the gay dating apps wasteland, in the company of men apt to send conflicting messages, is that so bad?

Takeaways

  • Swap gay dating apps for in-person interactions.
  • Aim to find friends – not dates.
  • Consider attending events or groups that offer proximity, frequency, duration and intensity.
  • Embrace vulnerability by remaining open.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.