Articles of Faith

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.

– D.T. Suzuki

Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.

If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.

Fair enough. But wrong.

I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.

That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.

Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.

We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.

In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.

The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.

In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”

(Be)Li(e)ving Together

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are many people who in the name of faith or love persecute countless people around them. If I believe that my notion about God, about happiness, about nirvana is perfect, I want very much to impose that notion on you. I will say that if you don’t believe as I do, you will not be happy. I will do everything I can to impose my notions on you, and therefore I will destroy you. I will make you unhappy for the whole of your life. We will destroy each other in the name of faith, in the name of love, just because of the fact that the objects of our faith and of our love are not true insight, are not direct experience of suffering and of happiness; they are just notions and ideas.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Let’s talk experience:

1) On Christmas morning of 2012, I found myself standing in a gas station in Bernalillo, New Mexico. The attendant, a Muslim man, reached across the counter to take my money and, smiling broadly, exclaimed “Merry Christmas to you!”

2) April 2003, Jackson Square, New Orleans: The Final Four is in full swing, and I am wandering through the French Quarter with an armload of little New Testaments and not the foggiest clue what I’m doing (that last part being completely in retrospect; at the time, of course, I thought I knew exactly what I was on about). As I walked through the park, I was hailed by a gaggle of transients deep in discussion, a comparison and contrast between the Bhagavad Gita and the Memoirs of Kurt Cobain. Why did they call me over? They saw my point of view in the bundle under my arm, and wanted to add my voice to the chorus. They weren’t afraid of the authoritarianism of the Bible; they just wanted to play with it a bit, and see how it might inform their way of seeing and interpreting the world.

3) May 2013 (roughly): I meet the Muggle. Up to this point, while I had encountered a number of atheists of the straw man variety, I had never interacted (at least not seriously) with one made of flesh and blood. And brains, it turns out. I was raised to fear these people: if God was the glue holding the world together, atheism was the turpentine dissolving his adhesive. In the Muggle I discovered, to my surprise, an extremely open individual willing not only to put up with respectful and well-considered disagreement, but even to entertain the potential validity of opinions other than her own. Color me surprised (and somewhat sheepish)…

None of this jives with the lines I was fed during the first several decades of my life. Everyone knows Christians and Muslims can’t mix, especially post-9/11, and in any case, one faith tradition cannot encourage another without descending precipitately into relativism and doubt. I thought about telling the guy he wasn’t supposed to do things like that, that as a Muslim he was supposed to hate Christians and everything they stand for, including and especially one of their chief holidays. (One wonders if anyone has ever bothered to ask him how Ramadan is going.) I thought about reminding him that, as a soldier in the ongoing culture wars, he ought to be burning manger scenes right and left, and doing all he could to take the “Christ” out of Christmas. But I just didn’t have the heart…

As for my gypsy friends in the Big Easy, I’d always been led to believe that non-Christians can have one of two reactions to the Bible: conversion or cardiac arrest. Furthermore, anyone who even considers the truths of any extra-biblical scriptures must be a non-Christian, an assumption which itself reveals the mental space I was in at the time. I have since had the great pleasure of meeting many Christians who are far more open than that in their approach to Truth, but it is a fact that many, many more refuse to look outside their own tradition for wisdom based simply on the fact that it comes from outside their tradition. I consider that one encounter to be a pivotal moment in my personal journey: there is always another perspective to be added to our understanding of the Absolute.

Finally, the atheists among me: simply put, atheists hate not only God, but anyone who believes in God as well. Or so I’d been led to believe. Then I met Madalyn (that’s street speak for the Muggle), and I realized how easily we allow preconceptions to cloud our ability to relate to people who don’t fall exactly in line with our own view of the world. I have learned a great deal from my Muggle friend, and I don’t mean just facts (although that, too). I have learned to be a better listener; I have grown in my courage to say the things I need to say, and not just the things others will like to hear. Most importantly, my faith in the possibility of civil, productive, respectful conversation and debate has been given a shot in the metaphorical arm. I am astounded once again at the fact that so many Christians, the “God’s love” folks, are less inclined to act in a loving manner than the evil, EVIL atheists I was taught to fear, who supposedly peddle only in a particularly nasty brand of nihilistic hatred.

Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, taught that the sound of a bell is equally clear whether it comes from Buddhist temple, Catholic cathedral, or Protestant church. In other words, we know the Truth when we hear it, and if we truly know how to listen, we will hear it (or at least the bits and pieces of it we’re capable of understanding in our finite, human Being) everywhere and in everything.

This life, as I see it, boils down to an ongoing search for meaning, and at the end of the day, everything means something. And no one can see everything. Which means we need each other’s eyes, each other’s perspectives. We need the seed of wisdom we each cultivate on our individual paths in order to glimpse the Garden in which we grow.

We need each other, not to become like each other, but because in our difference we complete each other.

What matters is not whether you agree with my religious views, or I with yours. What matters is what we each make of our views…and what they make of us.

Cabbages. And Kings. And Stuff.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Lewis Carroll

Allow me to introduce you to the Big Three.

The Big Three are the three moments, crystallized in my memory, that define my life as a minister. They are not good moments; they are not happy memories. They are a reproach, constant and unflagging, a chip I cannot dislodge from my shoulder, however hard I try. In many ways, they have brought me to this place, made me who I am today–a better man, I hope–but whatever good they have produced, I wear them, my albatross, with shame and regret.

I share them with you, and in sharing them, I share myself. They are my monsters, this is my closet. My cabbages, my kings.

1) Christmas, 2002 — Halfway through rehearsals for our annual “cantata,” we received news that the Methodist minister’s daughter had come out as a lesbian. And all hell broke loose. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t even our church.) We hatched a plan: what a perfect opportunity to share that Good News! By the next weekend, we had taken it upon ourselves to blanket the three surrounding counties–two in Missouri and one in Kansas–with a completely unsolicited mass mailing detailing the evils of homosexuality. We redefined “going on the offensive.” Now, I was just a lowly part-time youth and music minister at the time; I didn’t have a whole lot of say. Which works out well, because I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. And what’s worse–I wrote part of the horrible thing. Only the love part, mind you, only the plan of salvation. Only the part that explains how the only hope for all the evil gays and lesbians out there is to reject themselves as people and put on my name tag of choice. No harm, no foul, right? Come to Jesus, who loves you for who you are. But be sure to bathe first…

2) Winter, 2004 — I am now a full-fledged pastor in Robinson, Texas. I have been on the job for a total of four months. And I’m faced with a “fractious member.” I would like to tell you that I reached out to this person, helped him through a hard time, opened up a dialogue between him and the church at large. You know, all the stuff I go on about now. I would love to tell you that, but I can’t, because I didn’t. Instead, I dragged him out to the woodshed and “churched” him. Why? Because he believed a Christian could lose his or her salvation. And that’s not what I wanted my church to believe. For this piddly, sad little reason, I cast him into the proverbial outer darkness. A man who had emotional (and possibly mental) problems, a man who needed help. I had to protect my flock. From nothing at all. So I refused to protect him. From anything. And the cherry on top? When informed of what I had done, a local associational missionary summed up my actions in these words: “What a brave thing for a minister to do. That boy’s going places.”

3) Fall, 2006 — I’ve just performed my first funeral. A member of my congregation, not too much older than myself, had lost his wife to cancer. It was, as it always is, a traumatic experience for all involved. I thought of the man as a friend; we often talked, had heart to heart conversations; I felt that, of all the people in the church, he understood me best. When I, the poor part-timer, had a need, he stood up and filled it–a replacement for a busted thermostat in our rental house, a new laptop, whatever. He was a friend, a brother. And then…three months after his wife died, he came to me and told me he had met someone new, and asked me to marry them. Now, I had reservations about the timing–there were teenage daughters involved, the wound was still fresh, etc. But my real reservation was nothing so reasonable. This woman was a Mormon, see. And that, as I was taught, was a deal breaker. It was a clear-cut case of “unequal yoking.” So I said no. After everything he had done for me, I said no. But wait–that’s not all. Naturally, his whole family promptly left the church, leaving me to lick my principled wounds and spout pompous. I recently, in cleaning out my e-mail folders, came across a message I wrote to them, and the measure of my arrogance is hard to express. I was a giant prick. They were hurting the church; they turned their backs on me. I played the role of sacrificial lamb to the cotton-picking hilt. Oh my children–why hast thou forsaken me? Without batting an eyelid.

These memories are all bloody bullet holes in my heart, and they’ve never quite healed over. I am hopeful that at some point during my ministry “career” I did something good, but in the crunch of it all I folded like a cheap suit. And here’s the damnedest thing of all: as the minister’s handbook has it, I wasn’t folding at all. I was Taking A Stand. I was a flippin’ hero of the faith.

If I had to put into a nutshell the reason I left the church behind, well, there you have it. I hurt people; I turned them away from the one place supposedly defined by unconditional love; and in doing so, I Stood for What I Believed. The Lord is my shepherd. Now get the hell out!

It took me years to figure this out, but now I know. I see myself for who I was and what I was doing. I had this “treasure,” see, in a jar of clay. And it was nothing but cabbage. In the words of “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Don’t you understand, man? You’ve struck coleslaw!”

And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the taste out of my mouth…

 

 

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

So I’ve stopped reading the Bible. I no longer pray (at least, not in the traditional hands-folded, knees-bent sort of way); haven’t for going on five years. I don’t, under any circumstances, insist that my interlocutors “praise Jesus,” although I may return a polite “You, too” when someone tells me to have a “blessed day,” simply because I’m fairly certain God hasn’t cornered the market on blessing people.

Which brings me to my point: I still want desperately to bless people. Not by proxy. Not by pointing to some undefined deity in the Great Unknown, thereby relieving myself of any real involvement in the matter. I want to bless them. Through my actions, with my words–a smile here, a wave there, a handful of pocket change, if the occasion warrants, whatever. And I want all this in the absence of religious belief (institutional religious belief, that is; everybody’s religious, but that’s an argument for a different day).

Cue cognitive dissonance…

Here’s the old chestnut: How do we explain our ability to distinguish between good and evil, or our desire to help others and avoid hurting them, if there is no Absolute Example, no Ultimate Source, in which to ground them?

Heck. I don’t know. Does it matter? Really? Or is it just one more of the pointless arguments in which we entangle ourselves, thereby obviating the question? I don’t know why I want others to be warm and well-fed, and I don’t really put too much time into thinking about it.

It seems that, to some, “good works” are not legitimate unless legitimized by particular base assumptions. I’ve heard Christians, for example, claim that unless we love “because He first loved us,” then we might as well quit the clanging and chuck our cymbals out the window. On the other hand, I’ve heard atheists suggest that Christian actions are so bedecked with “ulterior motives” that they must be suspect by their very nature. And the conversation, as it does so often anymore, breaks down again…

I leave you with the words of political scientist Robert Audi, from Political Commitment and Secular Reason (2000): “an extensive agreement in moral practice is compatible with absence of agreement or even sharp disagreement in moral theory.”

To my atheist friends: Is it really the “ulterior motive” that worries you when you see a Christian doing good? Or is it that it makes you wonder if the “God-folks” might actually have a leg to stand on?

To my Christian friends: Why are you so desperate to prove that non-Christian means non-moral? Is it perhaps that loving actions performed by non-believers hint that maybe Truth extends beyond the pages of Holy Scripture?

Would the real Jesus please stand up?

Rock and a Hard Place

396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n…now that we’ve got them just where they want us.

– James T. Kirk

Question of the day: Do I want to be an atheist?

Answer: Not necessarily. Call it phantom limb syndrome or whatever you like, but a part of me still very much wishes I was a Christian. More to the point, it wishes all my Christian acquaintances would allow me to still be one.

It seems that it’s not cricket to claim a Christian identity without accepting a prescribed bill of goods. Prescribed, generally, by the same people who insist that any attempt to categorize the Divine is beyond us puny humans. I never cease to be amazed that those who speak of God and faith as beyond definition are all too happy to force that elusive definition upon unsuspecting others.

On the other side of the equation, I wish my new atheist friends would stop trying to revoke my membership anytime I express continuing affection for my Christian upbringing or any amount of regard for people who remain within the Christian fold.

Apparently, unless I’m willing to concede that all those folks, near and dear to my heart regardless of philosophical disagreements, who continue to embrace a religious worldview are near-sighted simpletons who only do good in spite of themselves, I’m betraying the atheist worldview. My wife, my parents, my sibling and siblings-in-law, close friends and long-time mentors–either I condemn them as idiots, or I’m no longer welcome in the sandbox.

So I’m stuck, between a Christian rock and an atheist hard place. I can’t even say I’m an agnostic without the hardliners on both sides accusing me of either intellectual laziness or moral cowardice.

Newsflash: I am who I am. Some days, I’m so strong an atheist that I can’t even spell “God.” On other days, I’m so sick of atheists that I consider baptizing myself again. I am who I am…and here’s what that looks like:

I am a follower of Jesus (the man, not the ex post facto metaphysical invention). But then, I’m also a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha. And a follower of U2, and Jon Stewart. And of truth wherever else I might find it.

I refuse to judge a book–any book–by the worst thing it contains, or a group of people by the most despicable individual among them. The Bible, taken as a whole, contains a lot of stuff that to our postmodern sensitivities is beyond abhorrent, but it also contains a lot of stuff that is beautiful and good. To refuse to learn from the good out of anger at the bad…well, that’s ignorance, as far as I’m concerned. And there are individual Christians out there who make me want to punch a baby, the Fred Phelpses, James Dobsons, and Franklin Grahams and such. But if I allow those infuriating, narrow-minded, self-righteous few to act as straw men for all the good and loving people who raised me and taught to me to be who I am today–heterodoxy and all–then I do Christians everywhere a grave injustice, and I’m the one not worth their time.

(Just so we’re clear, there are also individual atheists out there that I find completely intolerable, Dawkins, Harris, and the like. Anyone who can, with a straight face, tell me that these guys are any more open-minded than the “religious nuts” they go on about–well, XYZ, my friend.)

Religious upbringing is not child abuse. Sometimes abusers happen to be religious, and religion can be transmitted in harmful ways, but one of these things is not (necessarily) like the other. There are things about my childhood that I wish had been different, but that applies, I expect, to all of us. What I know for a fact is that, while my parents raised me in a very Christian home, they also taught me to be the loving, accepting, thoughtful person I try so hard to be. I owe them who I am, even the willingness to tell all y’all to take a flying leap if you suggest otherwise.

Take away the ad hominem, and we’re all just a bunch of plankton convinced that we’re whales. We’re all on the same journey, whether or not we agree on the stops along the way. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are Christians out there who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God; who don’t believe in an afterlife, or Noah’s ark, or a six 24-hour day creation. They don’t even believe in stoning homosexuals. And they are Christians whether you like it or not.

There are also atheists who are more than willing to see the beauty in Scripture (anybody’s Scripture, Bible, Koran, Talmud, etc.), and to engage Christians in respectful conversations based on an assumption of mutual intelligence. I know there are, mainly because I am one of them.

Somewhere inside me, Christianity lurks, hand in hand with the atheist’s skepticism. Why? Because it occupied the first three decades, plus, of my life. I cannot turn my back on that part of my identity anymore than I ought to turn from my search for Truth. Because some of that Truth still speaks through the Christian in me…

By and By

What must I do
to escape being you?
The lies I hold true because
you once told them, and oh,
how you sold them! A bill of
ill goods, black to the core: I
ate my fill and came back for more.396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n

I put them in baskets set aside for
the winter, a wine so malign it
betrays its own vintner. And when
my eyes opened and witnessed
new light, how desperate you were
to chain me to night. And how you
delight in making me squirm, in
stealing my pudding and feeding me worms.

You promise high heaven and then
slam the gate; make off with the key while
I stand and wait, cold and alone, trampled
by rain, a chill you’ve told me is for my own gain.
And yet, there you are, happy and warm,
inside with your cocoa, while I drown in the storm…

Disclaimer

I feel it necessary to address the tendency of people today to take offence at pretty much anything. It seems that everything from a sonnet to a sneeze must these days be accompanied with a declaration of the issuer’s non-participation in the opinion thus expressed. “The views I express in my own words in no way reflect my own views or opinions, and anything in my views or opinions which resembles my own views or opinions must be taken as nothing more than pure coincidence.”

If I like vanilla, but you like chocolate, you take offence. If I am a Republican and you are a Democrat, you take offence. If I’m a dog person and you are a cat person, you take offence. If you’re in the street and I hit you with my car…well, a pattern emerges. I mean, seriously, people–is there no end to the cycle of indignation?

I long for a forum in which honest debate is not only welcomed but encouraged, where opposing viewpoints are taken as helpful contributions rather than personal attacks. Where the conversation proceeds along lines other than: “You suck!” “No, you suck!” A forum in which we can tell each other the ever-lovin’ truth, for Pete’s sake!

Orthodoxy is the refuge of complacency and intellectual cowardice. Answers are to be found not in constant, rote agreement, but in the midst of sharp disagreement; not in the isolation and segregation of the like-minded, but in the collision of disparate worldviews; not in unanimity of opinion, but in unanimity of purpose.

In any case, the answers are not what define us. What defines us is how we deal with the questions.

But you didn’t hear that from me…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is by far the most frustrating book I’ve read in a very long time. I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value. But the best I can go is two stars out of five: the author makes some very good, very perceptive, very necessary points, but they are swallowed up by all the points he doesn’t quite land (including his central point), and by the tone of the book in general.

The author declares that the anthropic principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (p. 136). However, the anthropic principle, on its own, is of no explanatory value: it is tantamount to arguing that the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds because the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds. It is a tautology at best: as Dawkins uses it, the presence of life in the universe is explained by the presence of life in the universe (we’re here because we’re here), which is not so much to provide an answer as it is to beg the question. As such, the anthropic principle is not an “alternative” to the creationist stance, as Dawkins claims. It is not an “alternative to” anything. It is a starting point, not a conclusion.

Dawkins espouses natural selection, in part, as the means by which the anthropic principle worked itself out in the case of planet Earth. In this regard, he does a fairly decent job of arguing his case: it is an actual explanation for the ways in which life came about on this world. Many may find it more convincing than the creationist stance–for that matter, so do I. But it is still only AN argument, as is the creationist stance itself. The same may be said of the other mechanisms he suggests whereby the anthropic principle may have found expression in our solar system/universe. They are each continuations of the anthropic principle; without them that principle applies to nothing. While Dawkins accuses religious thinkers of misunderstanding the anthropic principle, one is left with the distinct impression that he has not understood it himself (or that he has, and has chosen to use it anyway, hoping no one will notice the difficulty).

This, however, is not the biggest issue I take with his book. In the final analysis, Dawkins is an elitist and a bully. Throughout the book, contrasts are drawn between the atheist sophisticate and the unsophisticated religious thinker, the “Brights” and the “Dims,” if you will. He makes it very clear, if implicitly so, that disagreement with the Darwinian point of view equals a lower-level intellect, immaturity of mind, etc. It is impossible, in his opinion, for a rational thinker to arrive at any conclusion other than his own. Thus far the elitism. As for the bullying: the natural outcome of Dawkins’ attitude to what he considers unjustified opposing viewpoints is itself fairly Darwinian. One wonders how many “Dawkinsians” came to their position freely, and how many did so because to do otherwise would consign them, willy-nilly, to the stupid, uneducated junk pile? In the case of the “evidence from majority scientific opinion,” how likely is a scientist openly to embrace a religious worldview if the inescapable consequence is being (literally) laughed out of her profession? Ultimately, Dawkins does not allow for honest opposition or argument, not unlike the religious thinkers he criticizes.

Again, Dawkins makes a number of very good, quite necessary points with which even lifelong religious adherents might easily agree. The idea of pasting religious labels on children before they are able to form any concept of what the labels mean is ludicrous and potentially harmful, whether psychologically or simply as affects intellectual openness and honesty. It is laughable for Christians to embrace scientific discovery when it supports what they believe and reject it as soon as it begins to contradict. And so on. Ultimately though, the tone of the book (at least in my opinion) overshadows its content. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who insists that others think as they do in order to be judged intelligent. This is exactly what Dawkins does, again and again throughout the book.

I am no disciple of any particular faith tradition, but having read this book I am also no disciple of Dawkins. The points he makes are often good; the manner in which those points are made is off-putting at best, completely alienating at worst. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey. Dawkins has chucked the honey pot out the window.

View all my reviews

Orthodoxy

Eyes open, refusing to see…
Heart choking, pretending to be
Alive inside. Freedom named but
Never claimed, shore in sight but
Holding tight to tossed shred of flotsam
Tied to an anchor. Well-disguised
Anger wrapped in false confidence:
All Sherlock, no evidence. Stuck with
A telescope dressed as a microscope, when
All the while
What’s required is a periscope to
Punch through the surface of
Play-pretend purpose, an act in
A circus of clowns
With no tent.

How Much Do You Really Want To Know? (Redux)

Recently, I wrote a piece on that paragon of insincerity, the “How are you?” routine. I received a number of different responses, ranging from the “well said” to the “seek help” ends of the spectrum. I’ve even been told that, emotionally disturbed as I apparently am, it’s a good thing I don’t want kids, ’cause God knows what lunacy I might pass on to them if I did. Yes, it seems that my imbalance may well be contagious…

I fear, consequently, that some clarification is in order.

My purpose in writing the bit in question was not to elicit sympathy from the teeming masses. It was not a cry for attention. I was not out to be patted on the head and clucked at in a soothing manner. I am not in need of a tender rendition of “Soft Kitty,” or anything at all like that, anymore than anyone else. (Although, to those who did express encouragement or support, I extend many sincere thanks.)

Yes, I did use myself as an example, but that is simply because my own mind is the only one I can come anywhere close to actually knowing. The things I shared were the scary little tidbits I rarely allow out of their cages because there’s a very good chance that if I do, they will turn on me and swallow me whole. We all have them, and we all keep them hidden. Because, after all, who wants a visit from the white lab coats? Who wants to be that box in the far corner of the moving van that nobody touches, because it’s marked “Fragile” and looks like it’s two prods from falling apart?

My goal was not to highlight my own issues; it was to point out that this tendency toward “stuffing,” as they call it, is very much a part of the unspoken social contract by which we regulate our lives in community. It is strong in all of us, all the time. It fools us into thinking we’re healthy and strong, when, by very virtue of accepting the status quo of silence, we are rendered sickly and weak. We are less than we can be because we share less than all of our selves.

But it goes even further than that: Our deathly fear of interpersonal honesty often causes us to forget how to be honest even with ourselves. We don’t ask life’s important questions because we’re afraid to admit their legitimacy. We don’t shine our inner flashlights into that particular nook or cranny because that’s where the real shadows are, and they’re best left alone. Like children, we pull the covers up over our heads in the desperate hope that what we can’t see can’t hurt us. If we stay still, maybe the lions will go away.

The range of responses I’ve received since my original post shows that, out of practice as we are, not only do we often not know how to be honest, we also often have no clue how to deal with honesty when it comes our way. Suddenly, we’re missionaries stuck on Bourbon Street: we will snap our own necks trying to look anywhere but at the peepshow in progress. Which is an apt metaphor because, as it is understood, the act of revealing one’s true self–pain, problems, and all–is tantamount to removing one’s clothing in public. We become spectacle at best, public nuisance at worst. And there’s a good chance we’ll be taken into custody and tossed in a cage somewhere, if not for our own good, then at least so no one else has to deal with us anymore.

I come out of the Christian tradition which is, if anything, more coercive than society at large in the vow of silence it enforces among its adherents. Because, you see, things can’t be wrong without the entire foundation of the tradition collapsing around itself. Things can go wrong, mind you; but even then they cannot be wrong, since everything happens according to divine plan. That being the case, any acknowledgment of dismay is transmogrified into “whining” or “complaining” or, worse still, “questioning the will of God.” And how dare we do that?

In this scheme of things, honesty becomes not only difficult but downright suspect. Perhaps your faith is weak, Grasshopper. The Force is not strong in this one. Suddenly all interpersonal communication turns into a Twila Paris song (which, like much CCM material, seems on the surface deep and meaningful, but turns out on closer inspection to actually say little or nothing). And all of this is designed, not to provide a solution to the problem at hand, but to serve as a distraction from it.

In this sense, at least, Karl Marx was right: Religion is the opium of the people, and the supposed heart of a heartless world. We are, all of us, caught up in what is broadly termed “the human condition,” and religion (in this case, Christianity) is often set up as the only viable outlet, the only feasible response to a situation beyond our control. We can’t stop this craziness; surely there’s Someone out there who can. In seeing through the pretensions of religious thought, Marx also understood that we have another option. What is structural can be demolished and redesigned, rebuilt. It can be replaced. His genius lay not necessarily in his specific solution–socialism–but in his general point: the true solution to the human condition is a reimagining of community. We have, if nothing else, each other. It is not religion, but we, who are the true heart of a heartless world.

We all have baggage, a nice array of Samsonite we carry with us as we move from experience to experience, cradle to grave. Life is about what we do with those pieces of luggage: we can conceal them in our closets, locked and impenetrable, or we can open them, lay out the contents, and deal with the jumble. Life is about what we do with where we’ve come from. But in order to do this, we need to be free to air all that dirty laundry conventional wisdom encourages us to pretend we don’t have; we need to be free to strip our selves bare for all to see, to be the broken toys we all become, to one degree or another, as life plays with us through the years. We need the freedom to be weak, because in vulnerability we will find strength, if not in the eyes of others, at least in our own.

Weakness lies not in admitting the painful nature of life; weakness lies in pretending we are strong; weakness lies in not having the courage to face our pain head-on. Life is not just a flesh-wound. It is a gaping, bleeding, oozing GSW to the chest, and we need each other like an assault victim needs a paramedic. So, instead of hiding our struggles and whispering them at the sky, we need to take a look at our fellow travelers (I mean this not as a political label, but as a genetic one). We need to talk to one another, freely and openly, and listen to one another in the same way.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky, but it has to beat the idea that there actually is pie in the sky, and nowhere else…