Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On Faith.

Hello again, dear blog. You are like a neglected houseplant to me, and every time I catch sight of your yellowing curling leaves I think of the lush tropical flowers that might have been. Just what I needed, another source of guilt to feed my relentless do-it-all machine! Awesome!

Anyway, I’ve been busy with life, kids, work- practicing living in the “now”, which is so popular but sometimes I feel like- “Ok, I’m here (in the now)…hmph, this is a little dull. where’s the party?” Maybe I need to finish my Tolle books. But I have been distracted on a memoir craze that started out with Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place. Super book, loved it. Then I went on to others including Schyler’s Monster (enjoyable read but not earth shattering), Swimming in a Sea of Death (wow- that’s an atheist? I am definitely not one of them no matter how undecided I feel sometimes! Despite that rant, the book was well written), and, yes, ok, Storitelling, which I actually enjoyed, then on to Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman, which I loved, loved, loved even if it did constantly freak me out with déjà vu and wondering if Catherine really had kids of her own or just watched mine from afar with a telephoto lens, jotting notes furiously.

Anyway, all this led to my looking at Kelly Corrigan’s website where she was researching a new book on faith and asked readers for their perspective. And this is what I am up with. So Kelly- this is for you. (for you blog-here are a year’s worth of words for you to munch on during the lean times).

(Unedited/Uncondensed/Probably Unreadable) Essay on Faith:

As for faith, I think I can rule out atheism. While reading a memoir recently from someone who was an atheist, it felt very wrong on spiritual, religious and heck, even cellular level to me. Which is interesting because every now and then I take a highly scientific view of life and its origins and think that maybe there is “nothing more”. When I am in such a “we die, are gone, it’s the end” mood I recognize my emotional state to be similar to that wild petulant teenager yelling at my parents who won’t let me go to a party or some other grave offense- “I hate you! You are ruining my life!” In this case, angry at the lack of answers to my millions of questions. While I have definitely considered the idea that life is a science and random evolution, I have always struggled with the intricacies- that perhaps it all sprung from one cell eons ago but from whence came that cell? An iota a matter must have come from somewhere? And what would be the purpose of humans to know of their own certain death if not to give them an opportunity to live with great purpose because this life meant something. Otherwise, it’s quite cruel is it not? To allow a species to evolve to a point where they see the certainly of their own extinction for no other purpose than the species got a little too smart, evolved a little too far. I wish I could say that isn’t possible, and it doesn’t feel like the truth to me but who am I to rule anything out?

So I mull. The truth is, if I’m not actively engaged in spreadsheets or fixing boo-boos or laughing at my baby’s giggle, I usually come back to the same place. Contemplating what this all means, where it is going, and will this be enough when I die. Very much in the present- is this IT? Is this what I am supposed to be doing? I spend so much time wondering, reflecting, surmising, I have to conclude it’s actually become a deep weave in my fabric of life, one that is silent, and invisible to those around me. Unless I bring up an Oprah show or they see yet another meaning-of-life book on my nightstand, they would never think to guess how much a part of me it really is.

And so I wonder, am I the only one worrying about this stuff? Because it creeps into my thoughts and builds into hours worth each day Are other people really thinking about whether their team will win the playoffs this weekend or if the black shoes at Barneys will be going on sale soon, or other less philosophical things? If I were in a culture that had worry stones for existential fretting I imagine I’d have a perfectly smooth stone that gleamed in the sun. As it is, as an American, I instead make due with a roll of tums and an evening cocktail.

About the time I turned 30, or maybe when I became a mother…at age 30, I felt myself cleave from conventional life. My life to that point had been building-focused. Build the friends, build my independence, build my life with my boyfriend-then-husband, build the career, succeed at work, excel, get there, go faster, achieve more, get more, win. Then slowly, something began to change, and I couldn’t even tell you when or how but it began to dawn on me, that it seemed so much of this was transient. That none of this was going with me, that it really more of a diversion. The truth was, time was short, and it was all too easy to make it meaningless. To easy to get wrapped up in the daily minutiae- jobs, cars, vacuuming, shopping, planning and completely miss the point. In my early 30’s it became real to me for the first time that I may not have the life that I envisioned for myself as a mega tycoon with a life of luxury. I blame my parents but they always made me feel special. Ordinary was out of the question- of course I would achieve all of this! But somehow it hit me, like a dart right between my eyes- I could die tomorrow, nothing is guaranteed, and all this stuff you have envisioned? Not worth a damn really. Not worth much at all.

So, as an avid reader, I turned to books, seeking an answer. When you think of it, people spend a lifetime learning things then writing a book on it. Sure seems like a solid way to save time- to learn from what others have spent years working to condense to a few pages. One I started with was Man’s Search for Meaning. A great title, but of little substance, at least for what I was searching for. Miracles in the Andes. I went on to read some Krishnamurti, some Ian Stevenson, Michael Brown (all I liked). I read a lot, but it didn’t solve my problem.

And so this search for meaning quickly ran into the question of faith. It was unavoidable. I struggled with the thought of if we all know we are soon to die, how is it we have not all dedicated our lives to answering the question that looms so large? We are going to die- will we cease to be? Is there another life or world beyond this? Do we choose which one we go to? Will we ever see our family again? I viewed with both longing and exasperation the faith of the strongly religious. Logically, I felt, if you are going to believe completely in an organized religion, you must admit in any event, that you can’t possibly know- we can’t possibly know- if your religions take on the ever-after is accurate. As someone once said about faith- all we can ever really know is that we aren’t sure. By definition, faith implies you cannot prove it to be so. But how comforting it looks from afar. The sureness, the simplicity. At the same time, it makes me crazy. I believe that most people’s faith is about as random as nationality. Organized religion is (mostly) inherited. You are an American (or substitute a religion here) and think America is best because you were born an American. That’s natural, but shouldn’t it be acknowledged that people want what they are and are born into to be the best and so we logically organize events and opinions to support that? It doesn’t really mean that Denmark (other religion) isn’t really a better home-country. Maybe Denmark rocks, I have no idea. I like being able to call myself a Catholic, because like everyone, it's nice to be part of a team, even though I'm pretty far from a "good" Catholic. Regardless, I guess what I am saying is- It’s ok to love your faith/religion. Admit you cannot be sure you are right. Leave room for others. Why doesn’t it seem to work out that way?

My parents, having spent many years in Catholic religious orders/work, sort of left things up in the air once they ditched religious life and started raising me. They no longer really bought into organized religion. They felt they saw “behind the curtain” so to speak and felt that the answer was not there. So no surprise, neither did I. I was raised in a mix of Catholicism, new age philosophy, and eastern religions. No wonder I am confused! Ultimately I found I could try to live by the rules of a faith via organized religion that make me feel like I am wearing someone else’s pants, or I could cobble together elements of faith, spirituality and religion that resonate with the inner me- my intuition if you will, which feels most like “me”. After several years of thought, I had cobbled together a framework of belief, it had a lot of holes like my grandmothers crocheted blankets, ripping out lines of stitches as I figured new things out, and inwardly cursing that the blanket was never done when everyone else seemed to be buying pre-made blankets at Walmart. Unfinished as it was, it was something to cling to when the cold set in. And it is, in short:

I think we slide into the world on a strand of light as eternal beings, build the light, grow learn enjoy, and then slide back out on our strand of light. I think the strands of lights of those you love intertwine with your own so you are forever linked. I think there might be something magical in the depths of meditation-glimpses to levels of consciousness unattainable in normal states. I have started to feel myself pulled down the rabbit hole in my early attempts, with last minute thoughts bringing me back before I knew where it was going. I have started to believe in laws of attraction. That you don’t have to make things happen. Things come to you once you are aware of this. Or maybe I have just been lucky, but I’m come to learn the less I struggle/fight/force it, the smoother the ride. In retrospect, I have always gotten what I wanted and needed, just not always immediately or without setbacks or challenges- but eventually things I really valued, appeared/happened. It seems from my view that the universe is inherently good. I’ve learned to look at the world and nature as if I have never seen it before in everyday life- driving to work, taking a walk, and in doing do, have found unspeakable beauty that makes me wonder what more a heaven could offer. In those moments, I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz- "heaven" was here all along. That sounds new-agey and crazy, but literally I was walking one day recently and suddenly looked up from semi-meditation and was astounded by the world. What seconds before had been a typical street in typical suburbia, suddenly the colors were impossibly deep and rich, the sky was the most gorgeous piece of art. What seconds before had been bad edging and crabgrass was a creative beautiful organic nature wonderland. Houses became cozy nests created by the creatures of the world. I didnt want for anything, I expected nothing and needed nothing. I was like a child who had never seen the world before. I was totally at peace, suspended in goodness. Which only makes me realize how much background noise and angst are usually present in everyday life. Anyway, at times like that, I realize we dont see the miracles that surround us all the time. We dont see what is right in front of us. Like sleepwalking-we think we are awake and aware, but we are not.

On faith in general, I dont think a human mind could ever understand it all, and we shouldnt spend all our time trying, but I still try quite a bit (I'm a total hyprocrit). But other things I can’t explain- like suffering and pain, other than perhaps it’s a way to teach those not suffering about compassion and those in pain about transcendence. But I worry that seems trite. And despite my beliefs and glimpses of that surreal peace, there are moments that I still feel seized with panic. That life is moving along quickly and I will soon lose my parents and elders, that dangers lurk in every shadow for those I love, that I will one day wake up and find myself at the end of life wondering how it all went by so quickly. And I want to grab hold of time and stop it- the peace and surety of assurance of eternal life and a benevolent universe eluding me. Sort of that feeling when all the sudden you find yourself going way to fast and your heart leaps into your throat and says, oh my god, this isnt fun anymore. Someone stop this thing.

Anyway, I felt ok about my Chinese menu of faith, until reading the Oprah magazine where Kelly made a comment about how American it is to think that you can pick and choose the tenants of your faith like reading from, well, a Chinese menu. That made me feel very predictable and silly-American- you mean this developing my own spirituality is grouped into the same sort of behavior that causes us to buy gas guzzling cars and build McMansions on every block? Me me me-ism? Maybe that’s true, but right now, it’s all I have. My final thoughts on organized religion? A hundred versions of the truth. Mostly inspired by greatly spiritual beings, whose words and insights have been to varying degrees contorted or twisted over the centuries based on the whims of man, or the known dangers of the game of “operator”. “He said what? It’s all about the duck?? Ohhh, it’s all about LUCK (strike 3000 years of duck-worship)”.

And because faith and meaning for me are intertwined, I will touch on my search for meaning. I think the idea of leaving a “legacy” as giving life meaning is a little overrated. For most of us, the Earth will not miss us when we are gone. The idea that we keep people alive by talking about the person or in our memories, is great until you go down one generation and that is the end of that. How often do you reflect on the life and values of your great grandparents or beyond? I reflect on them to pay them silent homage though I have no idea who they were or what they stood for. Still, I carry their DNA in my cell somewhere, so in case it matters, I think of them in tribute every so often in case it matter. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to cover your bases. So my focus is on happiness in this world which is a tall order. Happiness to me is comprised of several components:

1. It means having a faith- otherwise, you’re unlikely to be dripping in happiness if you really think this life is a random one time thing that you cease to exist after it- not much holiday cheer in that worldview. So you have to have faith to understand where this all fits, where it’s going, and the comfort that the connections to both yourself and others will not be lost and are not in vain.

2. Then there are let’s say “pleasures of the flesh”, this is where we spend much of our time, probably too much- pursuing – because some of these can be bought with cold hard cash. Things like the intrigue of travel, buying expensive good shoes instead of ones on sale that dig into my feet and leave little red welts, having massages, not having to cook with an oven that burns brownies on the left while the right side remains a gooey mess, a steam shower shaped like a snail, and let’s face it, just living a life of extreme beauty and comfort. I cant lie, I havent transcended these goals. Even as relatively short-term as I recognize them to be, god help me, I want it all.

3. Then there are the elements of happiness built on love- the beauty of your child’s laugh, the refuge and companionship of your spouse, the comfort that only your parents could give, the gift of friends you enjoy passing the days with.

4. Finally, I’d say the last major element of happiness is vocation- because humans thrive on achievement and creation. We can call it growing or learning or whatever, but the thrill of facing a challenge and meeting it- it’s this that causes people to keep going even when they reach their goals. They set new ones, continue on, otherwise, it’s like the idea of reaching the end of the internet- what do you do then? So what is it we do with our lives. Do we hone our organizational skills helping the homeless or find personal engineering genius building atom bombs? Does it matter? I wish I knew.

So if I’ve thought through it enough to be able to organize it into a nice neat essay on faith- do I feel as safe and secure as those who wrap themselves in the blanket of organized religion, saying "I believe what he said" while pointing to a ancient text? While we probably don’t know as much about others as we think we do- the answer is “I doubt it”. Absent the blind faith that says; "live your life, pay your taxes, help old ladies across the street, be good and in the end you will be rewarded in ways you can only dream of", I still sit outside with my faced pressed against the windowpane, my hot breath fogging the glass. In the end, I hope that God, whatever it is, recognizes that I really tried. Maybe I missed some rituals, maybe I wasn’t always sure…but I always hoped and I always struggled to explore heart and mind and spirit and make it one. If nothing else, I sought you out God, and frankly, your response wasn’t unequivitable. Given that, I did the best I could, so I hope that you are there, and, if I did it wrong, I hope that you forgive.

Well, Jack, sleepy eyes blinking against the light of the afternoon, hair tousled and damp, just came into the room and announced “My Nap was Great!”. With trademark 4-year old gusto, certain this news is both critical and likely to make me proud. He is so darn cute. Its one of those rare moments when I don't question anything, I just bask in the joy, soaking it in.

1 comment:

Kelly Corrigan said...

Hi there,

This is for all the great women in your life. Thought of you since you wrote such an interesting response to the faith question.

Have a great holiday season,

Kelly Corrigan