On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.

Rational and Reverent

 I’ve written about the Nones (And Then There Were Nones), or religiously unaffiliated. With almost 20% of Americans fitting this description (and the majority of them socially liberal), is it any wonder that the Unitarian Universalists would consider how to attract these folks? Add that we’re a shrinking community (Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs), and it’s easy to see why all those unaffiliated people might seem like ready converts to Unitarian Universalism.

IMG_0144Can the rational and the reverent co-exist? A recent sermon about the Nones set me thinking about the relationship between the rational and the reverent, mindsets that at first glance seem to be in opposition. The sermon, Watering Down the Wine, by Rev. Alex Riegel,  focused on this population of the religiously unaffiliated and played with the idea that we could attract some of these people to our fold if we changed our language and mindset. True, we have a relevant and rational message of compassion and inclusivity that likely does appeal to many of those Nones (as well as liberals happily ensconced in their own faith traditions). But there are barriers. According to the Pew study, 88% aren’t looking for a church. Why they aren’t isn’t covered in the study, but I’d imagine it’s a mixture of feeling wounded from previous church experience, feeling no need to collect on a Sunday morning in a traditional setting, and a preference for Sunday morning in jammies with the paper and a cup of coffee.

We have coffee, and jammies would likely be fine with most congregations, but for the most part, we’re still all church, and rather traditional church at that.  And wounded? Some, but not all. Many have simply decided that they don’t believe what they were brought up to believe. They’ve embraced the rational, what can be thought and touched and turned around in the mind. Others, like me, arrive seeking, questioning the beliefs of youth or just wondering what is out there. Or wondering what isn’t. Either way, we’re theoretically in it together for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (4th principle, for those keeping track).

So here we are, built around the idea that the search is the real work of life. That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers. We’re a rational bunch, sometimes ruthlessly, stubbornly rational.  Rational thinkers, wounded or not, make up the majority of those in the pews of a UU church, with spirituality and spiritual language largely abandoned or faced with skepticism. In his sermon, Alex suggested relaxing that tight rationality and considering adding some reverence. And he suggested re-thinking opposition to God, or at least to the traditional God. Replace some of the rational with the reverent, seemed to be the call.

I’m deeply rational. I’m also an agnostic who readily admits that I just don’t know the answers and am okay with not knowing. There is so much unknown in the universe, after all, and truths about it we take for granted today were the stuff of fantasy just a generation (or even a decade) back. I just don’t know, and that’s okay with me. I’ve long given up the “easy God” of James Kavanaugh, scholar, poet, and once-Catholic priest. I’m not bitter about the time spent with that comfort but not drawn back to it either. That’s the rational end of me at work. It’s the same part that doesn’t refer to being blessed and will commit to holding someone in my thoughts but not to praying for them. That rationality runs deep and strong, and it’s not wont to be pushed aside.

I don’t think that my rationality gets in the way of my reverence. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of me in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence, and the catch in my throat that comes is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless and trusts us to figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my dear friend’s eyes and am reminded that love is not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear but is fully available again and again.

It is reverence I feel when I sit on Sunday morning in a room of other people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same.

The rational may be the easy part for many of us, but the reverence is what keeps the rational from running losing our heart, reduced to reason only. The rational and the reverent balance each other, the latter reminding us that despite all we know, we don’t yet understand it all yet.  Our rational mind wonders and weighs, while our reverent mind celebrates the mystery, respecting what has been wondered and weighed and what remains unknown. It is the act of being reverent of the child, the community, the beloved, the stars, and humanity while understanding the rational underpinnings of it all that makes us more fully human than with either sentiment alone.

Rational and reverent. The Unitarian Universalist church appreciates both. This may not be obvious in our services and social time, with the rational language for more comfortable for most of us. So perhaps Alex is right. Perhaps we need to find the language of reverence to temper the rational. While that may be spiritual language, I don’t think it has to be. Perhaps more regular talk about awe and amazement, respect and appreciation, will bring us closer to expressing what we are more likely to note in the quiet of our hearts. Rational and relevant. Truth and meaning. This is the stuff of Unitarian Universalism.

Namaste.

Existential Darkness at the Dawning of the New Year

IMG_0149This morning’s New York Times brought the usual sort of news:

I’d go on, but I’d just get more discouraged.

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m feeling an increasingly familiar set of feelings as I wonder the meaning and purpose of my life and of life in general. No, there has been no crisis in my life. No sudden loss of a loved one or other such personal tragedy. Life has been quite generous lately. Thanks to the holiday break, I have had some time on my hands, an unusual situation given the tempo of much of my life. While I sometimes dip into the existential in this busy life, there’s usually enough that must be done to distract me from my growing angst. Thank goodness. Time on my hands has created time to stay with these thoughts, and the thinking has gone south.

I could blame it on my age. It’s not unusual for folks my age to have bouts of existential depression. The kids are growing, the amount of remaining life seems shorter by the moment (because it is), and the people who are doing amazing things in the world are often my age. Or younger. And the world seems increasingly chaotic, cold, and fragmented. It’s hard to maintain a sense that it’s all somehow okay. I’d imagine strong theism could be somewhat protective, but that’s not something I have plans adopting.

I do think theism protected me from this crisis during my childhood and younger adulthood. When it all seemed awful in the world or just within myself, belief in an omnipotent, loving deity provided an answer. Okay, not a concrete answer, but a vague sense of comfort, even if only the comfort of rote prayer. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked hard to cultivate the sort of belief that would offer the deep comfort I desired. I sought out experiences and spotty practices that might dull the loneliness and fear that lurked in my soul.

It worked. Or at least it gave me a place to run and something to do when the world seemed to dark and cold, providing solace. It also provided a community of people looking for explanations for the unexplainable and a bit of reassurance that they weren’t alone. And, according to psychologist Dr. James T. Webb, feeling connected and letting go are adaptive coping methods of managing these existential events.

I know pushing through these crises became harder as I let go of my theism, a process that happened gradually and somewhat reluctantly beginning in my early 30s.  Finding a community of like-minded people seemed unlikely after leaving two churches and wondering where the doubter belonged. I did find those people in the UU church I’ve attended these past several years, and they do offer community, albeit a community of people prone to the same sorts of doubts and depression. That’s perhaps too dramatic, as these same people work through those issues, moving though life determined to make it a bit better for those they touch directly or tangentially. There are no answers or perfectionism, but there is acknowledgement that there are big questions, plenty of big problems in the world, and a paucity of easy answers.

But it’s not really enough when this angst brings me down. I feel so small and ineffective in a giant world that frankly overwhelms, saddens, angers, and scares me. My life occurs in a but a tick of the second hand on the cosmic clock. My reach is so small, my grasp so loose, and my strength so inconsequential. And to top it off, I’m really not trying. The chaos continues around — people are born, they suffer, they die, and for what?

I don’t know. And I don’t know what I can do about any of it. Webb recommends several additional antidotes to connectedness and letting go. He advocates knowing one’s self, being involved in causes, maintaining a sense of humor, touching, living in the moment, cultivating optimism and resiliency, and being aware of “rippling,” the way our lives affect those around us. I’d agree that all of those can help ameliorate some of the pain associated with the existential crises that continue to punctuate my life.

I do think there is goodness in the existential angst. It serves as an honest acknowledgment that there is deep pain the world: divisions that need healing and people who need compassion. It reminds me that despite the reality of our aloneness, we are stronger together. And perhaps best of all, at least when I can turn a bit of light to the darkest of the gloom, is the reminder that love matters. The way we treat each other — the way we love each other — matters. If for nothing else, showing those in front of me love and compassion lightens their load and tightens the connection between us. And, if Webb is right about the ripple effect, it’s then worth knowing the love we show can carry to those not in front of us.

Does that matter, in the long arc of the universe? I don’t know. But it gives me a bit of comfort and lifts me back to the moment I’m in, making it an effective antidote for the time being. It lightens the quality of the inner dialogue and warms something within me that I’m willing to call my soul. It informs a course of action when the headlines are bleak — connect with others and simply love them. It’s the only purpose to this life that resonates with me, and if I’d look at the back of my car more often, I’d be reminded of that. Love. It’s our soul purpose. The rest follows. And a bit of the cloud lifts.

For a fine article on existential depression, read Dr. James Webb’s piece, Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults

Institutional Thoughts: Musings on Marriage

I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not actually getting married, mind you, since that’s just not on the radar. But since my divorce, I’ve thought about marriage: what it means, whether I’d enter one again, and why I feel so conflicted about it.

So why write about it now?  A good friend recently remarried. She’s utterly, completely in love. Both that love and the service were lovely to witness. Her wedding was the first I’ve attended since my separation (4.5 years ago) and divorce (3 years ago), and the months before it and the actual event brought me to wonder a bit more about marriage and whether I’d ever enter one again. I was surprised at how much my friend’s wedding caused my mind to tumble.

I was married fifteen years, spanning from the too-young twenty-five to a far-more-mature forty.  Some of those years were happy. Some were not.  I entered that marriage with the hope and confidence that typifies youth. When it finally ended, I walked away from the courtroom with sadness at what could not be and relief that what was had finally ended, I was also older and wiser and somewhat jaded. I left wondering about trust, lasting love, the fallibility of humans, the messes that result when our loving selves get lost to fear, and whether I could ever risk my heart again.

Sure, I’ve pondered the what ifs. What if I’d waited until I was older? What if I’d not seen marriage as bridge to be crossed to the world of adulthood? What if I’d entered it more certain of myself and with some years living alone (and not college-dorm-room alone)? But during that wondering, I’ve never desired to turn back the clock. That marriage brought me my children, after all. Beyond that, it was during the worst parts of that marriage and the time that came after that I learned about me and how my head works. I learned how much strength I had and what I truly valued. I learned I could go through what was unthinkable (divorce) and come out, well, better.

So with those positive outcomes from my first marriage’s end, why the sour expression when thinking about ever entering it again? The trite answer would be along the lines of “once burned, twice shy,” but that really doesn’t touch the tender heart of the issue. It’s not because I don’t trust men or because I wonder about my ability to judge character and suitability. It’s not because I’m waiting for marriage equity — when all are free to marry then I would partake. And it’s not because I’m a commitment phobe or prefer to live alone. (Or at least as the only adult in the house, although that does have some advantages. The empty side of the bed holds plenty of books and my iPad.)

Some of it is a bit of cynicism. Marriage, Catholic marriage as sacrament with plenty of forethought and a bit of counseling, didn’t safe-guard my relationship with my then-husband. The words said that day, the paper signed, turned out to be just words and paper. Human frailty set us asunder, and an expensive legal system undid the paper end. Now, as the child of divorced parents, I wasn’t naive enough to think that words, a priest, and a signature would guarantee happily ever after, but I did think that the intention that went into those words and those signatures would persist through the hard times. But for a myriad of reasons, sometimes that isn’t so. And sometimes, it’s better that way.

But as my father says, all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, this human construct consummates in separation. And, generally, a fair amount of sadness, at least. I’ve led a fairly easy life, void of death of those close to me and blissfully full of an abundance of friends, food, and good fortune. Those years before and during the end of my marriage were miserable, frightening, painfully sad ones. The sense of loss was only buffered by the presence of my children and the intervention of friends, and the hurt the former suffered created a pain in me I’d never known before and hope to never know again.

But back to marriage. Our culture holds high expectations for a spouse: lover, best friend, housemate, nurse, cook, cleaning crew, parenting partner, confidant, and more. It’s a tall order. Marriage is no longer simply a pairing based on logical arrangements and tangible benefits to a family. I’m not advocating the return to the purely utilitarian marriage, although there are days that my first criteria for a partner would be a willingness to clean the insect carcasses out of the porch light and a dedication to shower cleaning. I’m just wondering what the right balance of expectations looks like.

Truth be told, I’d like to partner again, even if that person didn’t clean bugs out of lights or scrub showers more often than I. My father often reminds me that we’re social animals, and the desire to pair extends beyond the biological end of procreation. (And there will be no more of that, mind you!)

Our culture seems to carry conflicting messages about partnering. On the one hand, it tells us that pairing is essential. Consider the number of articles on and off-line about how to find and keep a partner. Look at movies and TV, many which focus on partner acquisition even while hunting down the bad guy. Find someone who “completes” you, who is your soulmate, and all will be well. Being alone? That’s a situation to be fixed, preferably as soon as possible.

Countering that is what I’ll call the “whole people are happy alone” maxim. As a society, we also value independence and the individual over the group (politics and sports aside), whether that be the group at work or the group that is a committed couple. Saying one is lonely is viewed as weakness, with admonitions to know one’s self and be comfortable in being alone. I’d wholly agree that being comfortable in time alone is part of being a healthy human. Being able to sit with the self without restlessly searching to fill the void of other indicates a level of acceptance of one’s nature and being. But one can be quite comfortable being alone and yet feel still lonely. Heck, one can be inches from one’s spouse and still feel lonely. I’ve been to both those places.

So where does that leave me with the institution that is marriage. It’s not a magic-maker nor a guarantee. It’s not the answer to loneliness or lights filled with bugs.  It isn’t a protection against pain and hardship. It is in part a piece of paper that comes with legal protections and social acceptance (and it should be open to all, regardless of the gender pairing, but that’s another essay). At its best, it should be a commitment of love, friendship, and deep compassion.

Perhaps its the pain of ending part that has me stuck.  Perhaps it’s doubt that I could do a better job at my part, despite knowing myself better and seriously working on the parts of me that did nothing to help as my marriage unwound. Perhaps a bit of it is about trust, as much as I like to think it’s not. I just don’t know. That’s not much of a conclusion, but today it’s all I have. I’m open to thoughts about marriage, good or bad. Share away.

Religious Language and the Agnostic

I’m an agnostic. This word best captures my current residence on the belief scale, since being an atheist requires a knowing that I can’t claim to possess and theist or even deist reach further than I’m willing to stretch. But I was raised a theist and continue carry the language of a theist. No, I don’t pull out terms like second coming when discussing matters of belief, faith, or global warming, but other distinctly religious language leaves my lips, perhaps unnervingly often for one claiming not to feel the evidence is present to accept the existence of God.

Sacred. Holy. Spirit. Reverence. Soul. Communion. Divine. Amen. All those retain a place in my vocabulary, even years after the concept of a god eludes me. I’ve oft heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” and perhaps this applies to me, which might explain the retention of that spiritual language. Or perhaps it reflects what I miss about believing — a connection with something bigger than the forces of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Perhaps I make for a poor agnostic. I’d like to think not, however. I’m quite comfortable in my not knowing about the nature of the divine. In that not knowing, I can’t embrace a theistic tradition. Materialist, however, I’m not. I’ve mused here before about soul, salvation, and the sacred, all terms that leave most secular humanists cringing or at least looking the other way. Yet these terms speak to me. Better than anything else, these words of spiritual origin touch what I believe about the transcendent nature of life.

There is something more. Perhaps that more is the sense that the sum of us is more than our parts. Call it strength in numbers if you like, but there is something transcendent to me when two or more are gathered, regardless of their names. Whether that greater something is love, compassion, God, or something else entirely, I don’t care. But, for me, there is something there.

Perhaps that something — that love or whatever — is the product of the chemicals of my very human brain, circuits trying to make sense out of what I don’t understand. Perhaps it’s no different from what the ancients did when they ascribed the sun and moon with powers and worshiped them accordingly. I don’t know what that element is that exists when I’m in communion with others, what can bring out the very best in us and bind us together when there is no sound reason to be bound. Perhaps it’s an illusion or delusion. Perhaps it’s even God.

I don’t really think the “what” matters. I’d prefer not to make my “what” a someone or something with rules attached and strings to pull. I’d not want my “what” to be what divides a family, nation, or worlds. Whatever that “what” is — love, God, some law of the Universe that we have yet to understand, or only the workings of my human imagination — really doesn’t make a difference. It is, after all, only what helps me make sense of the world as I see it.

Maybe it’s a bit more than that. What to me is frankly divine (although not in the God as ruler and creator sense) shapes my way of being in the world. Whether Humanist, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, agnostic, or something else, our beliefs serve as the lens through which we see the world. My version of agnosticism tinged with spiritual language informs the way I think and act in this world. Believing that compassion and love are what both binds us and is greater than us, I strive to be more compassionate and loving. Holding to the idea of a soul — a true essence of the self that transcends egoic desires — leads me to seek that which lies deeply within each human. Understanding the natural world and all it holds as holy and sacred impacts my interaction with that world.

There is a flip side to those ways of viewing the world. What is not compassionate and loving distresses me, most of all when it comes from me. When I struggle to find good in another only to be thwarted, my sense of soul stutters a bit. While I hardly believe that all the world is good, I believe we were all born with the potential to move through the world with goodness. And though I may see both the furthest stars and smallest insect as sacred and holy, I eat some of those holy creatures and burn a fair amount of energy our nearest star played a part in forming millions of years ago, feeling guilty along the way.

In short, I’m human. I’m an agnostic human, with over thirty years of theism and theistic language that has left its mark in my heart and language. Some might say I’m still tethered by that theistic upbringing, unwilling to let go of the reassuring comfort of belief in what cannot be seen or measured. Perhaps. And perhaps this language will drop away in another five or ten years, as my time away from traditional religion increases. I hope not. Or at least I hope the sense of wonder at this universe and the love we share within it will not drop away as well.

Namaste.

On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

The steps behind the Unitarian Church of Charleston (SC) sum it up nicely.

Last week, I mused about my younger son’s atheism and my older son’s agnosticism, both which came to light after years of my own questioning and movements into and out of churches. (Here’s On Raising an Atheist: Part I.) I can see that piece may be seen as a cautionary tale to the parent wanting to foster theism. Perhaps it is. This installment, however, I think could inform a parent raising children of any belief system, at least any open to the idea that others can be moral, ethical people even if they hold different beliefs. As a strong proponent of a free and meaningful spiritual search for each individual, I’m fine with my children’s choices, which may be temporal or permanent. Either way is fine with me.

But.

Yes, there’s a but. It’s where I focus attention when we discuss atheistic and agnostic views, where my energy into their religious education goes. My “but” goes like this: those labels tell me what you don’t believe and nothing about what you do. Without a sense of what one then does hold sacred, important, or true, those are labels of negation (atheism) and uncertainty (agnosticism).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but to me, left alone, they are immature and incomplete.

So fostering this deeper thought is part of the work of raising the atheist and agnostic, including myself. What do you believe? I pose this question quite often to my boys, generally receiving a list of what my younger does NOT believe (God, creationism, etc) and silence from my pondering older. I often answer my own question aloud, noting that I believe in social justice, love, peace, compassion, loving kindness, marriage equity, equal rights in general, and the mystery that is our universe. I believe in honesty and integrity, hard work, and the ability of humans to change and grow. I believe in the sacredness of the world but not of any one nation. I believe we are all one in some ineffable way and that there is more in this universe we can ever comprehend, although the act of trying touches the sacred.

I never make it through the whole list without interruptions. “There is no God!” my younger exhorts. “Why would anyone think so? No one can prove there is one, so there just isn’t!”

My usual retort goes something like this, “And you can’t prove there isn’t one.” Witty, huh? Such is theological musing with my ten-year old.

The last time we conversed, he gave a bit of ground. “I believe in science,” he said. That, I told him, was a start.

My older remains silent for these spirited discussions, and I’d guess that has more to do with staying out of the fray than lack of serious thought on the subject. He’s in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age class dedicated to supporting that process. (Think confirmation without confirming a preordained belief.) He’s worked for weeks in class on a statement of faith and values –which is perfectly doable without a deity. No, I haven’t read it, but I have some inklings about what he holds valuable and sacred based on what causes him to cheer (Obama’s statement of support of marriage equality) and slump (intolerance of any sort).

Supporting the development of a personal belief structure in a child without a catechism upon which to rely takes more than benign neglect. It takes, I believe, both an education in the religious teachings of the world and in the gritty, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful world in which we live. Teaching children the language of the sacred and the religions of the world offers context to what they will see and hear throughout their lives.  It also offers them choice — the choice to embrace the path that leads them to the truth as they understand it. Informing children (in age-appropriate ways) of the ways of our physical world, from a sound grounding in cosmology, Earth science, evolutionary biology, and environmental science to a culturally diverse accounting of our planet’s sordid history, poverty, and human rights abuses — this is the education that leads them to establish their values and worldview. Topped with accounts of the world’s peacemakers and civil rights workers, there is a message to spread that good people working hard can make necessary change in a messy world.

I’ve yet to see my children suffer at the hand of theists for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I’m not naive to think that will not happen. Statistics indicate that about 16% worldwide and 3 -9% in the US identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. These are slippery statistics, since nonbelievers also may identify with other philosophical or faith traditions, like Taoism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or something else.  Others still identify with a theist tradition although reject the notion of a divine actor. There’s overlap, but the message is clear. As agnostics and atheists, we are a minority. And to many evangelicals in this country, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, we’re morally suspect and in mortal danger. So far, we’ve been surrounded with gentle, accepting folks of a variety of religious beliefs, many deeply held, including some nonbelievers, who hold just as tightly to their worldview. It’s likely many we’re with don’t know what we believe. Some don’t care. Others likely assume we’re Christian, the assumed norm in this nation. I’m open to the conversation and encourage my children to be the same, but it generally just doesn’t come up.

And this may be the toughest point about raising and atheist or agnostic. Do I teach my children to avoid the subject and give vague answers when discussions about the religious arise. No, but I’m not sure I’ve explicitly taught them how to handle those situations either. Our participation in the Universalist Unitarian tradition admittedly makes this less of an issue. We go to church. They go to religious education. They’re relatively well-versed in the seven principles (which aren’t doctrine or creed but really provide a fine framework for living life, regardless of belief). I’ve largely focused on reminding my younger to speak respectfully to others and avoid his more inflammatory statements about what he thinks about the presence of a god. He’s generally taken this charge seriously, although he’s prone to spout anti-theist rhetoric to those he deems likely to think like him, meaning family and a few close friends.  We’re working on this balance between speaking one’s truth while not being overtly offensive to others.  Evangelicals of all beliefs (atheists included) struggle with this, although most of them are not still ten and struggling neurologically with understanding  that the internal milieu of others might differ from one’s own.

Perhaps a better title for these posts would have been “On Raising  a Respectful and Responsible Atheist (or Agnostic) Who Appreciates the Role of Religion in the World and Can Articulate What Values and Beliefs He Has, Not Just Speak Against Others.” That’s a bit unwieldy, however, and still likely missing something.  I’ll stick with the original and continue to encourage my children to articulate their beliefs and values that accompany their atheism and agnosticism. I’ll teach them paths to peace from all the world religions and open their eyes to the real need to work for that peace today. Whether they remain agnostic or atheistic or not, whether they remain within the Unitarian Universalist church or not, this education will serve them well.

Peace.

Alfie, Rocks, and The Red Wheelbarrow

Woodstock and Alfie many years ago.

Alfie, our guinea pig of 7 years, a resident of the planet for 8.5 years, died yesterday. My sons and I took him to the vet in the morning , knowing they’d allow him to return to the earth a bit sooner, rescuing him from the pain he’d experienced in the last month or two. A few minutes after an injection to the abdomen, he stopped breathing. We brought his body home.  In the afternoon, my younger son dug a hole for him, and with little ceremony but plenty of heart, we returned him to the universe. That afternoon we also watched the eighth in the Teaching Company’s lecture series, How The Earth Works, by Dr. Michael Wysession.

It was the perfect eulogy. That lecture was about the rock cycle with generous nod to the carbon cycle. The two intertwine, with atoms moving from inorganic to organic matter, then back again, over and over, for billions of years. He began the lecture with a sheet of paper, posing the question of how to return the carbon atoms in the paper to a tree. Bury it burn it, flush it, eat it. Whatever action one chooses returns it to the universe and, often, potentially to the tree. I’ll not relate the mechanisms by which this recycling of atoms can happen, but I found his recitation of ways to be deeply meaningful on this day of sadness and loss.
We’re star dust, the products of fission and fusion, all which began billions of years ago. We’re but a short blink in the existence of an atom, just a stop along the ironically both ordered and chaotic way of the universe. Every breath we take continues this exchange of the matter that makes up our bodies. Stay in the same place for a while, and it’s hard to say what around you is you and what is other.
I find all that immensely comforting and utterly humbling. I am an indescribably small part of the universe, with my body a collection of transient atoms arranged just so in a form that I call me. And yet, I’m part of all of it, the whirl of life and what came before life, along with what comes after it. Awareness of my transient nature and ever-changing collection of atoms could lead one to believe that one doesn’t make a difference here. With all than change and flux in the cycles of the universe, who cares what I do in my blink of a time here?
Along comes chaos theory, ready to lift us out of existential despair.Chaos theory is about finding the order in what looks disordered. Mathematics, physics, economics, biology, psychology, geology, and more all utilize chaos theory, applying the principles to order and disorder. Rather than discourage one further, chaos theory can be encouraging. After all, even small differences can make profound changes to the larger system.
Recall the butterfly effect. Mathematician Ian Stewart puts it this way:
The flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen, does. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, pg. 141)
In other words, little stuff matters. We’re the little stuff, or at least we’re a bit of the little stuff. Alfie’s life mattered. On a biological level, he certainly put out his share of waste that found its way to the back garden off my deck. He also took a fair amount in, creating a small but definite carbon footprint over his 8.5 years. He had an impact on the universe. While beyond the realm of formal chaos theory study, he certainly had an impact on our hearts.
Finally, there’s the  red wheelbarrow:

 

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

William Carlos Williams
It seems that before chaos theory was first a subject of experimentation by Edward Lorenz in 1960, William Carlos Williams hit upon it in verse. His intent remains a mystery, and there is no indication that he was musing about chaos or the purpose of life. But I’d agree with our virtual geology instructor, Dr. Wysession, that one possible interpretation is that the details and seemingly small stuff matters. I’d extrapolate from the poem that if the wheelbarrow and its particulars matter, so do we. As one who doesn’t hold that we’re here with a preordained purpose from a deity, this sense of “mattering” in the physical sense is comfort.  We are made from the stuff of stars, and we’re in constant interaction with the universe, atom by atom.
In our short trip as whatever we call “self”, we participate in the chaotic order of the universe as well as the far more tangible lives of other selves. Our selves in the world matter, and if the flap of the butterfly’s wings effect on the weather a hemisphere away, the little stuff we does matter as well. Between our birth and dying, the living matters. It’s the smiles, encouragement, compassion,  and love that we share that makes a difference far down the road. (The not-so-nice stuff we spread travels just as far.) It’s the care we take today of our planet that changes what happens in the seasons of our children and grandchildren. We do make a difference, whether we mean it or not.
So Alfie, goodbye. Dr. Wysession, thank you for a reminder of our interconnectedness and to the greater web of the universe, from rock to tree to me. William Carlos Williams, thanks for the image of a wet wheelbarrow. Thanks for the little ways you touched our lives, Alfie.  Those little touches have such a far reach.

Right Speech: Paving the Path to Peace and Understanding

I have wallowed in a puddle of disappointment these last several days.  The world I so much want to exist just doesn’t, and that has seriously bummed me out. I am not one to wander into deep existential despair, bemoaning the lack of a purpose to life.  (I believe we’re here to love one another and reduce suffering, but that’s another post).  Instead I tend to stand in the pit of disappointment in humanity.  Perhaps those aren’t too far apart. After all, my disappointment in humanity largely stems from our failure to truly love one another and our continuous acts that increase human suffering.

On my bleakest days, I wonder what I’m missing.  Just how stupid am I, thinking we should just all get along despite our differences of race, religion, politics, gender, education, and all? It’s tempting to wall myself off from all that irks me and give up that idea that we’ll ever become a more compassionate world.

This bout mental gloom began with a question.  A Facebook friend, whom I do know in real life, asked a question regarding a politically charged issue.  Now, I’ve been called naive before, although I prefer to think of it as hopeful.  I assumed (first error) that her question was genuine: a gentle probe to understand the other side of an issue she holds dear to her heart.  So I answered (second error), with a gentle, honest, brief answer.

For a few minutes after I replied, I thought I’d entered a real conversation.  Dialogue, I thought.  We’ve started a dialogue!  Not the kind that radically changes anyone’s mind.  Not the sort designed to move one from Camp A to Camp B.  Just the kind that increases understanding across the aisle, even if just by a hair.

Then the bottom dropped out.  Vitriol, assumptions, and judgement from others of her mindset began to fill the page.  Stunned and feeling rather ambushed, I sat, heart pounding and stomach rising. Her question was no genuine question, no reaching out to understand. It was rhetorical, aimed at those who espoused her opinion.  Rather than an invitation to dialogue, it was a request for affirmation from those of similar mindset.

I could have walked out then.  Perhaps I should have.  But still clinging to the idea that social media can offer us a unique opportunity to see and better understand the views of others, I hung in.  I briefly and politely replied a few times to the loudest responder, then feeling discouraged, wrote and posted a blog post on reversing the polarity of social media.  I didn’t advocate for a side (indeed, I’d not taken one).  I didn’t verbally spar. But I did give up, removing my replies (thus evoking  cheers), and chastised myself for my naiveté.

And then I despaired. If in this forum, we can’t make an attempt at civil and respectful speech, what hope to we have in the larger community?  Here, where we’ve selected to whom each missive goes, should we not be ready to be grown-ups, indeed models for the children of ours who are certainly watching, and agree to disagree as we teach them to do? Not to compromise their values, but rather to practice right speech (speak the truth with kindness and compassion).

In short, if we can’t practice tolerance and right speech among “friends”, where can we?  If we can only practice those traits with those who share our opinions, faith, and long-held beliefs, we are only walling ourselves off, missing opportunities to understand others and for others to understand us.  We’re missing our chance to practice our beliefs regarding love and respect. On a simply practical level, rancor and ridicule never moves someone to your point of view.  If anything, it moves them further away.  Back to that catching more flies with honey than vinegar adage…

So I get it.  Facebook and other social media are really places for us to justify ourselves and our stances.  After all, most of our “friends” think just like we do, right? And if they don’t, who cares?  We’re just being ourselves, true to our beliefs.  And that, of course, justifies any behavior or word these days.

But, I want better than that, online and in real life. I want a world where voicing a differing viewpoint isn’t an invitation to inhibition and insult.  I want to be able to disagree with respect, receiving respect in turn.  As humans, we owe that to each other, at least in my naive way of thinking.

This is far from the first time I’ve despaired about humanity, losing hope that we could ever truly learn to love each other with all our differing beliefs and opinions.  As I age, I ride the roller coaster of delight to despair more often, perhaps simply because I’m thinking more about it.  As my children grow, I strive to teach them to live lives of compassion, love, and respect.  I fall short with my own words many times, and then I despair in me. Perhaps the stakes just seem higher than ever, with increasing polarity in our nation and decreasing tolerance for what is not our own way of being.

So what to do?  Undoubtedly, start again, albeit a bit wiser.  Remember that above all, we’re all just painfully human, tightly identified with our minds and easily threatened by what we do not understand. Remember that it’s not defending an opinion or belief that is the problem, it is forgetting that those who don’t agree are as fully human as we are.  Thus, we open ourselves to greater understanding of others, which can only help form the path to peace.

Namaste.

Common Ground: Reversing the Polarity Social Media Encourages

I’ve heard it said many times that the internet has increased our polarity.  Rather than increasing our understanding of the vast variety of viewpoints in our world, we tend to herd (yes, like sheep) with those who think and feel just like we do.  We go to forums and join email lists filled with people who validate our worldview, or at least a little slice of our worldview.  We pat each other on the back, celebrating how right we are in our way of thinking.  At our best, we patronizingly ask what those poor fools on the other side of the issue are smoking, shaking our heads with a bemused, knowing smile.  At our worst, we ridicule them amongst ourselves or to their social media selves, calling them names and judging their character.

We’re human.  We seek out other humans who are like us.  We look for a neighborhood that we think fits our family. We look for a church that matches our belief system.  We seek an education for our children that fits what we think education should be.  It’s human nature and completely understandable.

It’s also dangerous.

When the only voices we hear are the ones that validate our existing point of view, we miss the balance that comes from hearing what doesn’t match ours.  I’m not talking about the “hearing” that is followed by rolled eyes and online rants.  I’m talking about real listening to another side of the issue and to what the other person has to say.  Whether it be about politics, religion, a current community issue, or a standing social concern, the key here is really listening without judgement.

This is hard.  As  Unitarian Universalist, a member of a liberal religious tradition, I stand by the right for every human to search for what he or she finds true and meaningful, within the bounds of respecting the worth and dignity of every human being.  That can really be tough, requiring far more breathing and pausing than I sometimes care to practice.

To be sure, listening to opposing viewpoints does not mean agreeing with them.  It doesn’t mean never presenting a respectful rebuttal or providing additional (neutral) information.  It does require an open mind and heart and some creative thinking.  It takes creativity and openness to look at the world through another’s eyes, if even for a moment.  It takes knowing where your own buttons are, remaining alert what might threaten to set them off.  It takes love — the kind of unconditional love Jesus taught– and compassion — the sort the Buddha demonstrated — to quiet the mind and just truly listen.

Why bother?  Because, at best, ranting and raving at the other side accomplish nothing.  Because digging in, calling names, and making broad assumptions is the job of two-year olds and teens (the latter of whom we rightfully expect better).  Because, like it or not, much of life is a mystery, as is all of the future.  None of us have the market cornered on the best way of living in this remarkably complicated world.  Really. And no amount of vitriol and rhetoric actually changes anyone’s mind.  Does the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” ring a bell?

Just try it.  Try it on your public media of choice.  The next time someone posts a favorable link about the politician you hate, the church you can’t stand, or the cure-all that you’re sure is garbage, don’t just move on.  Click through. (Judiciously — I’m not advocating damaging your computer or being irresponsible.)  Read the link.  It may be a one-sided rant full of — wait for it — vitriol and rhetoric.  Or, more often in my experience, it may be a more thoughtful look at the other side of a subject. Before cursing it on or off-line, look for what’s behind it.  Google the politician, church, or cure-all and read more.  Listen while you read, to the people behind those messages that drive you out of your mind.  Listen to their fear, their hopes, their concerns.  Listen to your own heart and mind, noting judgement and your own fear, hopes, and concerns.

Repeat this exercise until you kind of get it.  Not believe it (although that could happen), but just understand that there could be another valid way of looking at the world.  That other way may be in stark contradiction to yours, and you may be more opposed to it than when you first began your search.  That’s fine.  The point is to know what the other point of view is about. After all, it came from human beings (and, if it’s via social media, it came from human  beings you call your friends).  It’s worth understanding where they come from.

Don’t be surprised if your heart softens a bit, even if you hold your stance as tightly as before.  Don’t be surprised if you find it harder to lambaste folks you don’t know online and off, now that you have a better feel for them as human beings.  Don’t even be surprised if you now find it easier to respectfully voice your own opinion.

The secret is this.  The more you know about another way of looking at the world, the more you understand just a bit of the people behind those crazy ways that are not yours, the more you see how you are similar to them.  The woman who opposes all vaccinations? She has fears for her children, just like you have for yours.  That’s common ground.  The man who rages against higher taxes for national health care?  Perhaps he worries about not having enough resources down the line, like so many of us do.

We have more common ground than we think.  Our internet communities can make it seem like we have none, breeding hate, anger, and fear.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Until we see what we share and at least try to recognize the thoughts and feelings behind another’s point of view, we’re living neither the message of Jesus or the Buddha.  We’re simply practicing polarity.

Gelt Getting

We’d lit the candles while my mother said the prayers.  We had finished our chicken noodle soup, challah, and salad, cleaned away the dishes, and brought out a few small gifts that would conclude our annual Hanukkah celebration with my Jewish mom.  This was the fourth night of the Festival of Lights, but as it was our first night with my mom, it was our one and only Hanukkah night this year.  The day before Christmas Eve, we carved out some time for this ritual.  On the 24th, my boys would open presents with their father and his side of the family.  Tonight, however, we had together.

“Hey, look what I got!” said my younger son, giddy with Hanukkah excitement.  “Guilt!”

Gelt,” I corrected him, choking on my sip of wine.  “Gelt is the foil-wrapped chocolate coins we have at Hanukkah.  Guilt is something else entirely.”  He proceeded to repeat his verbal faux pas for the remainder of the evening, although seemingly for reaction each time.  “Gelt,” I reminded him each time.  Thirty minutes later, we bundled into the car and headed for their father’s house for, as they call it, Christmas Eve Eve.  I said a quick goodbye, envious of the easy excitement of the young. I headed home, which was conspicuously quiet and calm.  Time to spend a peaceful evening with my mom and — hopefully– sleep with more ease than I had for the last few weeks.

Sleep has been an elusive companion lately.  While falling asleep is occasionally a problem, staying asleep from five onward plagues me far too often.  As an eight-hour-a-night person, this drop to five or six night after night makes for an out-of-sorts string of days.  Knowing (or at least hoping) it’s the stress of the holidays helps.  While I don’t go all out for the season, I do enough to create a fair amount of extra work.  I try not to worry about what isn’t done, but concerns nag at me, and they seem to like to do this most several hours before the sun comes out.  Guilt walks closely behind — or perhaps ahead — of my worries.

Ah, gelt would be such an improvement.

Because I haven’t dictionary-delved and dissected for a while, lets turn to the online Merriam-Webster for a definition of guilt:

1:  the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly :guilty conduct
2a: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
  b: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach
3: a feeling of culpability for offenses

Guilt has its place.   Definition 2a, the state of one who has committed on offense especially consciously, is the prick of discomfort that can keep us from a Lord of the Flies existence.   Guilt about wronging another can lead to efforts to repair those wrongs.  Many might prefer to ditch the word guilt, replacing it with self-awareness, but I prefer the bite of good-old guilt.  Guilt can drive us to do the right thing when we really don’t want to.  A bit of guilt can lead one on to a heart-felt confession and determination to do better next time.

But definition 2b, feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy, is a different beast entirely.  I’m a pro at imagining offenses, either ones I imagine I already committed or ones that I might commit if I say or do the wrong thing.  Or if I don’t say or do the right thing.  Either way, like worry, guilt (2b) is useless and damaging.  This season, I’ve done my share of both, and I paid with my ministrations to those futile emotions with my sleep.  Do I make the cookies my mother loves, or let myself off the hook this year? Did I get the gifts for the boys even?  Did I overdo it for them?  Did I miss a cue during that conversation with so-and-so?  Did I stay too long when I visited?  I’m getting it all wrong!

Yeah, that stuff is the useless guilt and worry that folks say to discard.

If it was only that easy.  I’m convinced some of that tendency toward worry and guilt is imprinted on my DNA.  I can’t place that load on my Catholicism, which wasn’t the faith of my most formative years and was not practice in a place that paired the faith with guilt.  There is a fair amount of tendency to ruminate and feel guilt (2b) on my father’s side of the family, with a lessening of intensity as those genes are diluted by passing generations.  I’m able to talk myself through most of my worry and guilt, but I’ve yet to reach the point where I don’t feel them come on, unbidden and unwanted.  Like the neighbor’s cat that frequents our back door, guilt and worry return spontaneously, since at times they are fed. (Yeah, sometimes we feed the neighbor’s cat. I don’t feel guilty about that.  Much.)

So as the end of the year approaches, I continue to work on letting guilt (2b) and worry go.  With the more preparation-heavy holidays past, they are less likely to keep me awake. The pair is likely to continue coming, however unbidden.  After 42 years, that seems unlikely.  I can continue to acknowledge them then let them go.  All feelings pass, and these are no different.  As for what I pass onto my sons, that remains to be seen.  I’m hoping it’s gelt.  That’s the good stuff.