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Posts from the ‘Hopes’ Category

Christians and Pagans and Atheists and Einstein

There is a great song by Dar Williams called Christians and Pagans. If you’ve never heard it, have a listen:

Back in 2009, when I was reeling from the shock of loosing my life-long faith, scrambling to reconstruct some semblance of a worldview, and aching over the huge gash that had been torn in the safe, warm, loving fabric of my family relationships, this song was my catharsis.

And my hope.

I would sit and listen to it on repeat, fighting tears, aching inside for the all of the parents and children, brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents and friends throughout human history who, for whatever reasons, have found themselves on opposite sides of a dividing line.

Having one’s heart strings stretched across the brick and mortar and barbed wire and chasms we’ve constructed between various ideological camps – it hurts.

When I lost my Christian faith, I didn’t stop loving my Christian family. And they didn’t stop loving me. And while I understand the reasoning and experiences that have led them to their conclusions, I have had other experiences that have led me to mine. Ones that can be explained in words, but not fully transmitted.

How can I expect my parents to follow the winding trail my mind and heart have travelled since I left home? And how can I begin to understand the lives they lived before I was born, and even after, inside their own minds and hearts, that have forged and strengthened their own convictions about life?

I can’t. We are all stuck inside our own heads, and there is only so much that can be shared through words.

And that leaves us in this awful tug ‘o’ war between love and pain.

I hope that someday it will be like it is in the song – that my family and I will be able to gather around the table, hold hands, celebrate the beauty of life, and choose to respect each other as equally intelligent, good, legitimate people, accepting each other’s differences and seeming crazy-ness in spite of our mutual inability to comprehend, understanding that we are all just trying to “[make] sense of history and [draw] warmth out of the cold.”

I guess we are pretty close to that already, maybe even farther along in some respects. And I am so thankful for that – for my parents’ determination to stay in my life and love and support me, to allow me to participate in theirs; for their growing willingness to engage me in conversation on philosophical topics, to ask what I really think, to clarify what they really think. I am thankful for my siblings’ continued support and communication and care.

I know at times it would probably be less painful for all of us to just go do our own things and check in occasionally to discuss the weather and other innocuous topics.

I’m so thankful that’s not my family.

The one thing I am wishing these days is that they could identify with this line from the song that I love so much, the one that goes, “And you find magic from your god and we find magic everywhere.”

There is magic in life. There is beauty and awesomeness and mystery. I experienced it as a Christian. And I experience it now as an naturalist, perhaps even more profoundly. And it is those who live in light of this magic, wherever they find it, that, I think, tend to be the kind of people that other people want to be around and who, little by little, are loving the world to a better place.

Albert Einstein probably said it best:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

I, of course, believe that the most accurate, whole, and satisfying perspective from which to experience this awe is a naturalistic/humanistic one.

But whether you consider yourself a Christian, a pagan, an atheist or anything else in between, I hope you are finding it – that magic, that sense of wonder, that keeps your inner spark alive, that makes life worth living.

If you are not, don’t waste another minute. Life is short. Go get it. And don’t be afraid of boxes and lines. Crossing them might be painful. It might stretch some cords. But love is amazingly elastic. And amazingly strong.

And the wonder is worth the pain.

Why This Atheist Still Gets Up In The Morning

monks

Sometimes, even on sunny Saturday mornings, I have moments when I feel like quitting.

Which is ridiculous considering how easy my life is compared with most. I have a clean, warm home; a closet full of clothes; plenty of food to eat; a job and health care and friends and family to love; and on top of all that, nobody shooting at me. That is a lot.

But still, even when life is easy, life is hard. It is hard in other ways, inside.

You see the never-ending conflict and hurts and injustices between people. You carry the guilt of collective practices that are damaging the earth. You experience and/or anticipate the inevitable pain and frustration and limitations of aging. And, in very lucid moments, you realize the immanence of your own death and the deaths of those you love.

And you just can’t help thinking…what’s the point?

When I had these days as a Christian (and I had plenty of them), I would collapse into a heap and throw myself onto the mental safety net of God’s omnipotence. I didn’t know how he was gonna do it, but I had complete faith that, somehow, someday, he would make everything right.

There is a quote by Julian of Norwich in her work, Showing of Love, referencing the ultimate end, that says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

I came across it in my universalist days (which turned out to be, for me, the gateway to atheism), and it brought me a lot of peace, believing that no matter how much I screwed up my own life or humanity screwed itself, God would fix it. He would make everything okay.

I would remind myself of that, and stand up, put my head down, and just keep going, and hoping.

I think the emotional need to have this fail-proof back-up plan of The-Salvation-Of-Everything is a huge part of why so many people are compelled to believe in some sort of god concept.

We don’t want to be ultimately responsible for ourselves. We want that cosmic mommy/daddy out there who will pick us up, dust us off, pay the bill, change the tire, and reassure us that everything is under control; that we are safe.

If you were lucky enough to have an earthly parent or two who did those things for you, you know as I do what a gift that is. It makes the transition into adulthood much less painful.

But it is still painful.

At some point, we all have to grow up. And growing up means learning to be your own parent: your own fixer and protector, your own last resort, your own safe place. It means being responsible for your own life.

And if you, like me, happen to not believe in a personal god with a will and the unlimited power to manipulate this reality, it also means being responsible for ALL of existence – this miraculous, inexplicable, self-existing, crazy, beautiful phenomenon that we are privileged by our consciousness to witness. It is a precious and fragile thing, life. And if there is no god, it is up to us to preserve it.

That is when things get really weighty. When you realize that.

Now, when I have those what-is-the-point days, I can’t just throw up my hands and trust that “All shall be well.”

But I can still hope. And I can act.

I read a story recently (a true one) in a book by Joanna Macy, about some Buddhist monks in Tibet who were exiled from their country by the Chinese and only decades later were allowed to return. They, their homes, monasteries, and communities had suffered terribly during the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the fifties, and seven years after returning, they were still rebuilding the center of culture and education their land had once been.

The political atmosphere, however, remained volatile. No one could predict what might happen in a year, or ten years.

The following passage from the story explains a revelation the author had while she and her husband were there in Tibet, observing the monks’ efforts, and wondering about their will to continue in the face of unlikely odds. It was revelatory for me, as well.

As we stood on the outer wall, I watched Bon-pa Tulku smile calmly as my husband queried him about Chinese policies and the prospects of another period of repression. I saw that such calculations were conjectural to him, as were any guarantees of success. Who knows? And since you cannot know, you simply proceed. You do what you have to do. You put one stone on top of another and another on top of that. If the stones are knocked down, you begin again, because if you don’t, nothing will get built. You persist. Through the vagaries of government policies you persist, because in the long run it is persistence that shapes the future.

When I have my giving-up days, now, I still do the same thing I did as a Christian: I stand back up and keep going.

It could be that in spite of my efforts, our efforts, the world may not improve much. And I’m pretty sure it’s never going to be perfect. So I’m left to choose between two evils:

I can plop my butt down and live out my days in selfish hedonism, starved for meaning and fulfillment, depressed that life isn’t the way I want it to be.

Or, I can pull myself up by the bootstraps, head back out into the fray every day, do the little bit I can in my little corner of the world, and hope for the best.

Both options are hard, and either way, life is going to suck a lot of the time.

It makes more sense to me to do the hard, sucky thing that MIGHT produce some good – some positive change that could benefit our children and grandchildren and maybe even alter the course of evolution and consciousness – than to do the hard, sucky thing that is guaranteed to find us a hundred years from now squatting in the same dark hole, or worse.

And I see enough good, enough beauty, enough creativity and awesomeness and love in humanity to make all the frustration and set-backs and agony of the journey worth it, to make life worth preserving.

I hope you do too.

Because it is not “persistence” as a vague notion that shapes the future, but persistence lived out by individual, real people – like Bon-pa Tulku, like you, like me – who together form communities and societies and countries and the human race.

If humanity is going to persist, you and I must first.

Freedom to Love

I ended my last post with a hopeful view of what love and marriage can be, should they ever come about in the life of a given individual. However, I spent the majority of it moaning about the complexity and overwhelming-ness of finding and choosing a life/marriage partner.

And now I am feeling a little sheepish.

Never once in the midst of all my agonizing did I stop to consider what it might be like to be denied the freedom to undertake this “task” at all, one that is, perhaps, among the most profound of human pursuits and most significant sources of human joy and meaning.

And yet, that is the reality for possibly ten percent of people alive today.  Should they be fortunate enough to birth and grow the kind of deep, irrational, vulnerable, and committed love we all long for, they are still not guaranteed the opportunity to live out that love publicly or be accepted as part of society.

Considering recent political events surrounding gay rights (i.e. signing of the same-sex marriage bill here in Washington State, and the passing of a similar bill in the Maryland House of Delegates) I’m hoping this won’t always be the case.

But right now, if you happen to have romantic affections for a person of your own gender, things look pretty grim.

And this is tragic.

I mentioned a while ago, in the first installment of my Why I Am Not A Christian series, that probably the earliest major issue I had with Christianity – one that played a large part in my deconversion journey – was the idea of Hell.

Homosexuality was a close second.

Growing up in a very rural, very conservative, relatively homogeneous community, I did not come in contact with many openly gay people. So it was relatively easy for me, for a while, to accept the teaching of my church that homosexuality was a sin; that it was a sinful life-style chosen by sinful (or deceived/deluded) people.

But then I started volunteering with a church youth group and began mentoring a young girl who happened to have two moms, who were some of the kindest, warmest, most welcoming people I had ever met. I was baffled at their kindness and grace toward, and the freedom they granted their two daughters to participate in, an organization that looked down on, even condemned, the love that formed the foundation of their shared life…a life that appeared to be as full of love, understanding, forgiveness, consideration, selfless-ness, wisdom, temperance, and all-around good family values as the most exemplary heterosexual Christian marriages/families I had witnessed.

I couldn’t wrap my head around what could possibly be bad about that love.

According to 1 John, after all, “Love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God. He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love” (Ch. 4. vs. 7-8).

I was blessed to be born to parents who knew how to love each other and their children. I grew up witnessing real love in action every day. And what I saw happening in that girl’s family between her moms, between her and her siblings, was no different than the deep love I saw pass between my own mom and dad, and as a result among my brother and sisters and I as well.

Then there was my dear friend in college, a Christian, who revealed to me that he’d struggled for years and years with homosexual feelings. I was baffled. He was one of the most faithful, courageous, upstanding, passionate Christian people I had ever been privileged to know. There was no question in my mind that he would ever have chosen to entertain those feelings or ideas by his own volition.

I began to consider the possibility that scientific findings of genetic predisposition toward homosexuality might have merit. But that left me questioning God’s character. How could crippling my friend with this condition that He supposedly condemned, possibly bring Him glory? It had only been, thus far in my friend’s life, a source of self-loathing, isolation, alienation, paralysis, and pain and torment of all kinds. Why would a good god allow that?

(Years later another dear Christian friend, this one female and one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, analytical people I know, came out to me. The conversations we had about her childhood feelings toward men and women, combined with my knowledge of her character and some reflection on how I had experienced my own sexuality as a child, finally quashed any possibility remaining in my mind that homosexuality is a choice.)

Then I moved to Seattle. I met and made friends with many more people like my youth group mentoree’s mothers. Some single, some in relationships. Some “preppy” and highly educated. Some a bit “stoner” and unambitious. Some hipster. Some jock. Some philosophical and thoughtful and analytical. Some younger. Some older. Some more emotional and irrational. Some kind and generous. Some self-centered and cynical…

…basically running the same gamut of human beauty and ugliness and quirkiness I had witnessed among the heterosexual people I was formerly solely familiar with.

And then I got to know Christians – real, dedicated, Bible-believing ones – who not only welcomed openly gay people into their communities, but actually viewed their love as another equally beautiful, right, and good manifestation of the love of God.

And then I discovered there is very little in the Bible that actually addresses homosexuality. Much less, in fact, than there is addressing issues of dress and clothing and hairstyle and diet and many other details of daily living which we completely disregard or interpret as being directed to certain people in a certain time and place but not applicable to current life.

And I began to think more about some of the objections to homosexuality put forth by those who oppose it, asking whether they made sense, whether they were valid. And I found that they didn’t, that they weren’t.

For many people, I think, regardless of what their religions or philosophies tell them, there is an negative “knee-jerk” reaction to homosexuality, simply because it is foreign to them. Most people (90% is the estimate) are genetically pre-dispositioned toward heterosexuality, so it is true that homosexuality is not “the norm.” Most people cannot imagine being attracted to someone of the same gender. It feels as unnatural to them as an attraction to a sibling or parent. And that rarity of homosexual people in the general population has been hugely compounded by social pressure. In many cultures of the world for the past two thousand years, homosexuality has been condemned, forcing gay people to remain “in the closet.”

And as human social behavior has proven over and over again, ignorance breeds distrust. We automatically fear what is unfamiliar to us. And that is an unfortunate quirk of the human psyche that we really need to get over.

Those who continue to entertain this instinctual aversion often attempt to support the “unnatural-ness” of homosexuality by pointing out the fact that it produces no offspring.

That is, of course, a fact. However, heterosexual partners participate in all sorts of other healthy, normal sexual activities that likewise produce no offspring. Heterosexual couples have sex at all periods of a woman’s menstrual cycle, despite the fact that she may not be in her fertile window. Sterile couples also have sex, even when there is no hope at all of conceiving. Couples who are using natural methods of birth control enjoy each other’s bodies in sexual ways that are physically gratifying and expressive of love and intimacy.

Should sterile couples not be allowed to marry because they can’t produce offspring? Should heterosexual couples only touch each other when they’re ready to make a baby?

Neither should a homosexual couple’s inability to produce offspring be used as reason to prohibit their sexual expression of love and intimacy.

Some people might stop me here and say, “Well, if we allow this ‘unnatural’ form of sexual expression, what is to prevent bestiality, or pedophilia, etc.?”

While it hurts me to legitimize this suggestion with a response, I will nevertheless point out that human sexual behavior must always be (is usually, in psychologically healthy individuals) regulated by our consciousness and volition in such a way that justice is done by all involved.

Our government exists for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms and welfare of its citizens. We have laws against pedophilia and bestiality in order to protect those vulnerable and less powerful (children and animals) from physical and psychological harm. An adult man wooing and sexually using a young girl who is physically and emotionally immature and unable to make a free, reasoned, healthy decision about what to do with her body, is a much, much, MUCH different thing than two adult men or women who find each other attractive choosing to act consensually on that mutual attraction.

It may be true that manipulation and abuse occur in homosexual relationships, but they occur as well in heterosexual ones all the time, and nobody would therefore conclude that heterosexual sex is bad because it can be used to control and hurt people. Neither should we allow the instances of unhealthy homosexuality to discredit homosexuality in general.

Others may object to homosexuality because of its ramifications on a societal, rather than individual, level. They say that children need a stable home life, with a loving mother and father providing resources and guidance and protection, to grow and develop optimally.

And I believe they are right…mostly.

Research has shown that children do do better in two-parent homes where these needs are met. What it hasn’t shown is that these two parents must be a male and a female, specifically. Most of the research out there has been done comparing single-parent homes to two-parent homes, and most of the two parent homes existing in our historically anti-gay U.S. society happen, not surprisingly, to be heterosexual.

By my own afore-mentioned experience, a family with two moms can be just as loving, healthy, and secure a place as a family with a mom and a dad. If research has been done comparing mother/father homes with mother/mother or father/father homes, I would be surprised if it showed any significant differences in child outcomes when extraneous variables are controlled for.

Another argument that often comes up but makes very little sense to me, is the idea that homosexual marriage somehow devalues heterosexual marriage.

Marriage has meant many different things to many different people over the course of human civilization.

Perhaps you are a Christian who believes, based on your particular interpretation of the Bible, that God ordained it as a sacrament to signify an eternal commitment and bond between one man and one woman, as a reflection of his love for us and as a means of populating the earth and bringing glory to him. Is your belief or commitment, or the beauty you find in it, diminished by the vastly different views and marital practices of an aboriginal tribesman in Africa or your Buddhist neighbors next door? I don’t see how it could be.

The love and marriage and type of commitment shared by two women who happen to live down the street, should have about the same amount of affect on the value and sanctity of your own marriage as the love and marriage and type of commitment shared by two twenty-somethings in India whose parents betrothed them as children: absolutely none whatsoever.

The beauty of America, the thing that has made it unique among nations, is the great degree of freedom we have here to live exactly as we see fit. It is true we must reach consensus on certain issues if we are to live peaceably, but beyond those essentials we must all – for the sake of our own interests – adopt the motto of “live and let live.”

For what if the tables were turned? What if you were in the minority?

You may feel your point of view on life, your chosen life-style, is the best and most right. And many may agree with you. But those who don’t hold their own beliefs with equal conviction and earnesty. Why should another’s way be required of you if your way is not hurting him nor impeding his ability to live out his convictions? Why should yours be imposed on him?

If you value your own freedom to believe that homosexuality is not a good way to live, you must value the freedom of your neighbor to believe the opposite.

If you value your right to pursue life, liberty and happiness in whatever way you see fit (within the bounds of civil behavior, of course), you must value the right of your neighbor to do the same.

And of all the avenues by which humans pursue happiness, the road to love – real, true, committed, intimate, love – is undoubtedly the most travelled, the most promising, the most fundamental.

The fact that so many people are denied this pursuit, essentially because it makes some others uncomfortable…it breaks my heart.

May the 21st century bring to the human race greater wisdom, greater understanding, greater acceptance and grace for those who are different…

…and the freedom, for ALL people, to love.

Romanticizing Reality

I am an advocate of getting-in-touch-with-reality, for sure.

It only makes sense to me that we human beings, if we are going to fix (or at least improve on) our many flaws and foibles, and figure out how to live life best, must first understand The-Way-Things-Are.

Unfortunately, we have this very strong tendency to believe what we wish to be true. And that is a problem. You’re going to have a rough time and waste a lot of energy, for example, if you believe you have the voice of an angel and should spend your time sharing your gift with the world, when in actuality you sound like Grover from Sesame Street.

If your wheels aren’t on the ground, they’re just going to spin.

So, first-things-first, we need to – both individually and collectively – get a grip.

Once we’ve done that, however, and our “wheels” are making good contact with a solid surface, we’ve got to turn around and put those rose-colored glasses right back on…at least this is what I’m thinking today, and I will explain why.

We are very tactile, short-sighted creatures, really. We are easily bogged down by the immediate, mundane details of our lives. Happy moments of the past and future are hard bring to mind when we are faced with today’s sadness or boredom or frustration. The present difficulties seem more real than anything else, and it makes us want to give up the fight.

Considering the large percentage of our lives that are consumed by these mundane details, you’d think we’d be pretty much screwed.

BUT…there is this other funny little quirk in the human psyche that is our saving grace:

We are compelled by story.

Much more so than we are by facts, statistics, dissertation or rational analysis, however true or relevant they may be. Stories move us, stay with us, and help us make meaning from our existence.

Every now and then, for me, something happens in my life that enables me to take a step back from it and see it all as part of the grand human drama…one that is headed toward some sort of resolution in which good triumphs over evil and all the pain and tedium turn out to be the stepping stones that get us there, if we use them positively.

I’ve realized this about myself repeatedly – how much more clearly I see and think, how much more graciously I act, how much more forgiving and loving I am toward others when I am looking at my life from this outside, cosmic point of view.

That is what I mean when I say “putting on rose-colored glasses” or “romanticizing reality.” Not living in denial of what is, but looking at it through a lens of hope. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but it is something we must try to do – all of us – if we are going to bring good out of the chaos.

I’ve had something pretty crazy happen to me this past week. And, yes, it has to do with love. (What else is a 29 year-old, single girl gonna talk about?)

That boy, C. (aka Mr. Love), after two years of absence, is back in my life. (Perhaps I should clarify that “in my life” includes such activities as kissing and texting me.)

This is rather mind-blowing, as I have spent so much time longing for this. And it is producing one of those moments in which I look back at my life and see all the heart-ache and questions as plot twists in my own life’s story.

Of course, if there is one thing I have come to believe over the past couple of years, it is that life is full of twists; that it is so NOT predictable; that it will take you places both painful and joyful that you never could have anticipated.

Since my wishing and wondering over whether or not I would ever see C. again has been answered, it has inevitably been replaced by the next big question…will we end up together? But that is a silly question to ask, really. Because even people who “end up together” (i.e. get married) just have to keep asking themselves bigger and bigger questions.

Will I stay with this person today? Tomorrow? Ten years from now? Will I have children with this person? Will we spend our lives pursuing the American dream? Or Chasing Adventure? Or Fighting for World Peace?

Having this one current, significant question answered in my life has made me realize that life, the future, will always be one big question mark. And if I’m going to enjoy the journey, I’m going to have to embrace that, embrace uncertainty. And be okay sitting back and watching the story unfold.

Whether C. and I fall in love and get married and have kids, or whether we date for a while, have a great time, and decide we aren’t really compatible, it will all just be part of the story – my story, his story, and the story of the universe we are both effective entities in.

But I think that, no matter what happens, I will be able to navigate it all gracefully if I sort of levitate above it all, seeing the events and circumstances that come from a universal perspective…

…believing that in the end reality – even with all its harshness – can have a happy ending, if I, if WE, believe it can and are willing to take action accordingly.

A Little Wrong + A Lot Right = Pretty Darn Good

Life is good. I just have to say that.

I came home from work tonight, after another crazy week of school, absolutely exhausted. I wanted to go out dancing, or even just to a movie this week, but I was too tired. And I couldn’t forget about all the stuff I have to get done tomorrow and Sunday.

I ate dinner at home alone on my couch, thinking in the process about how lame it was, and how I, as a single, 20-something who loves people and activity and fun and new experiences, should be out HAVING them on a Friday night, rather than eating a cottage cheese-based psuedo-dinner on my couch and going to bed at 9:00.

I started to get really sad and grumpy and bummed out.

And then I picked up the book I just checked out from the library, The World As I See It, which is a collection of some of Albert Einstein’s writings, and before I had even opened it, pulled my head out of the tiny little hole of my own life and remembered the rest of the world.

And it made me remember how totally awesome my life is. How much I HAVE. Food and home, family, friends…so much freedom…to be and think and say and do anything my heart and mind and experiences move me to.

And I remembered that life is not about DOING a certain set of activities or checking off a list of accomplishments that are frequent among people in my particular current age bracket. Life is about BEING. Regardless of age, race, gender, occupation, socioeconomic status, or anything else.

It is about being the human being you know you can and should be. It is about living and experiencing and taking it all in one day at a time and relishing the good and beauty, and learning from the pain. And it is about loving. Not just other people, but also yourself (which can sometimes be the hardest part).

Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

You can take that statement to mean a lot of different things, but one that makes a lot of sense to me is that our perception of things, how we interpret them and what meaning we attach to them, almost totally determines how we feel about them.

When I sit around thinking that my life is unsatisfactory or incomplete because I don’t have/do _______, ________, or ________ …it is! And it makes me grumpy.

When I remember that I am staying home on Friday night in my cozy, comfy apartment full of food and clothes and more, bought with the money from a good job, in order to get a good night’s sleep so that I can think and work and play and socialize and learn and live life to the fullest tomorrow, my life seems so great.

And it is.

Why is it that we human beings so often focus on the one or two little things that might possibly be wrong, when there are SO many things that are right?

I am tired of doing that. Need to flip my thinking around somehow, permanently. Do you think it’s possible?