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.


Spinning Stories

I’ve recently returned to the psychologist who helped me maintain my ground during my divorce. Life’s challenges were mounting up, and my feet were leaving terra firma more often than was comfortable. Seeking the objectivity and advice of an emotionally neutral person with a plenty of wisdom and a view beyond the confines of my head seemed the best course of action. After a few visits, I was feeling the Earth a bit more firmly, but life being what it is, shifted abruptly, and I found my newly regained balance broken.

At my last visit, I told my story of angst and the latest tremble. I’m fairly adept at finding my flaws and naming my demons, but when only seeing life from the inside of one’s head, it’s easy to miss stuff. After a longer recounting of my condition and concern, I paused. “That’s quite a story you’ve told yourself there,” she noted. “Perhaps you could spin a different one, one that would make your life more comfortable.”

She was right. I’d taken a set of happenings and situations, mixed them with my feelings, insecurities, and prejudices, and written a fine story that connected all the dots while both creating and justifying my angst. Of course, none of us ever knows exactly what is going on in the mind and hearts of others. We guess all the time. We take a bit of data (or even just second-hand hearsay) and mix it with our bias and out pops a story. Not the truth. Just a version of a possible truth. From there, the story spinning takes off. Every piece of data surrounding the event can then be added to the story, strengthening it in our minds. Never mind that the story makes us miserable and does nothing to build better relationships or improve anything. We spin the story and watch the person or world through that lens. Thus a drama is born.

A practical example is in order, and since I’d rather not incriminate myself or anyone else in the process, it is purely fictional. Let’s say you’ve had a conversation with a friend and shared something difficult and close to your heart. Rather than shoring you up or reassuring you, your tale is met with distance and even a bit of possibly condescending scorn. Confused about this behavior, which was unexpected and, to your mind, unwarranted, you start to spin a story. You start with a guess about the motivation of this behavior. Perhaps you decide this friend thinks you’ve made huge errors and that she’s a judgmental person with no compassion. From that point on, it will be easy to find evidence that she’s just that. With the story spun, every encounter will be woven into your tale about her, and that tale will grow so large it’s hard to see your friend behind it. The story colors your encounters with her, and your mind continues to add to the evidence that your spin is truth not fiction.

Let’s say you decide this story isn’t serving you well. Perhaps you miss the friendship. Perhaps you see that the data you’re seeing doesn’t fit the story you’ve woven, and all that jamming the data to fit the story is wearing you out. Perhaps others encounters with you challenge your story. Or perhaps you just told your story to a fine therapist. Whatever the case, let’s say you revisit the original event (which can be very hard to find after story creation — our memories of events change as we retell them aloud or in our minds). You decide to tell a different story with the same data, hopefully a more charitable story. This time, you decide that perhaps your initial sharing hit her in a personal way, so personally that she had to fend it off with defensive action. Or perhaps decide the event was an anomaly, more characteristic of a bad day or a slip of the tongue and temper than a sign of her true personality. Whatever the new story, it likely could be one that changes the color of the situation and allows you to open yourself to her friendship again or at least keep the first tale from renting so much space in your head. Either way, you’re at greater peace. You’re a bit more grounded.

So back to the therapist’s office. After hearing some options for respinning the story that was unpleasantly taking up so much space in my head, I picked one that worked better for me and that took some of the blame and responsibility off of the antagonist of my story. Rather than just shifting it to another character, I pictured my previous mental antagonist as like the weather, variable, and largely unpredictable. With that image, I could change my story and allow her whims no more power over me than the weather. Simple sounding, but profoundly effective. I was shocked at how that lightened my mood and altered the way I saw my struggle. I consider myself a fairly astute observer of my own mind, but this mental faux pas had escaped my mind’s eye.

What other stories was I spinning up there? What other situations did I see as intractable that were truly quite manageable and bearable if I only shifted my view of them? I found stories about my ex-husband, friends, acquaintances, and even my kids that definitely could benefit from a critical look and plot change. Some are hard to change. It’s not easy to look at an event or series of events, sometimes years past, and decide to reinterpret them in a way that causes you, the spinner, less angst and anger. Not that I’m full of angry tales of those in my life. I have very few of those, thank goodness. But I can see where my stories about situations have clouded my ability to find solutions to problems. It’s been worth taking the time and effort to look back and rewrite.

I’m not advising rewriting the facts themselves or tampering with the truth. Objectively observing the events in our lives is difficult but essential work, and our minds are wired to fill in the gaps, turning a few data points into a narrative. I’m advocating being aware that the story we spin around a fact can serve us well on our journey or serve us poorly. When a story takes our minds and hearts down roads that cause us more pain than the actual event, it’s worth taking another look at testing the veracity of the story.

Perhaps the best part of that recent session was the effect it had on how I started to meet uncomfortable situations. I watched my thinking and emotions more carefully. I observed the stories start and was more able to stop them before they spoke louder to me than the truth my senses had taken in. Most of these stories indicted me, for the stories I tell me about myself are by far the darkest in my collection. Self-doubt, worries about the future, misgivings about things said populate these tales. And as I watched  my mind this week, I found that my stories about myself and what I’d failed to do correctly popped into my head at a startling pace.

I’d like to say I promptly hit the delete button each time those terrible tales found their way to the surface, but that’s not an easy task. It is a worthwhile task, whether the story be in formation or years old. So go ahead. Try respinning a story or mindfully creating the next one that starts. Make it a charitable yet honest tale, limited by the truth but bound in love, inclusivity, and patience for all the characters it contains. Make it one worthy of the space it occupies in your head.


You Don’t Get It

You don’t get it.

These four words make me cringe. They’re rife with intolerance and condescension. I’ve read them several times this week, sometimes aimed at me and sometimes at other groups. I’ve heard them in religious circles, including UU groups. Those four words have left my mouth as well, never with favorable results.

You don’t get it.

After a rather (surprisingly, to me) controversial post on my homeschooling blog, Quarks and Quirks, I received these words in my inbox. They were written by well-meaning mothers who carry somewhat different beliefs about parenting than I. They seemed to be written to shock me into understanding how fundamentally flawed my reasoning was. I could see the sad, disapproving look and slow shake of the head that accompanied the authors of the words. One writer added she was sorry I missed the bus, since not getting it didn’t seem to elicit enough contrition in me. I told her I’m enjoying my walk.

They don’t get it.

This week, I stumbled over that phrase while perusing some blogs and online articles.   I regularly take time to read what “the other side” is saying to their inner circles, with the intent to better understand their point of view. This can be a frustrating process, leading to frequent despair.  I try to keep an objective eye, looking for they “why” behind the opposing point of view. But that distance is hard to maintain when I trip over that phrase: They don’t get it. In both cases, the phrase was aimed at those for free choice, specifically at Catholics for Choice. Catholics for Choice a group of Catholics who believe issues of conscience (contraception, abortion, reproductive technology, etc) are just that — issues of conscience that are not to be dictated by hierarchy of the church. “They don’t get it” was written by pro-life Catholics, over and over, sometimes with the sad shake of the head tone and other times with scorn. I sadly shook my own head, befuddled that any group would use that belittling phrase to convert the opposition, especially when the opposition shares the same faith.

They don’t get it.

I’ve heard and read the phrase within Unitarian Universalist circles as well. We’re a varied group, welcoming all, so we say.  Given that commitment to radical inclusivity, I’m always surprised to find that rather condescending statement come forth. I’ve seen these words written and heard them said in print, in conversations, and from the pulpit. They’re object is varied, generally pointing out to other groups but occasionally aimed at others within our tiny movement who believe differently about God or the way things work. The former is condescending. The latter is divisive in an already-small group of people working to forward an agenda of love and tolerance. We can’t afford that, folks.

You don’t get it.

I’ve shouted that statement to my loved ones. It’s trite but true that too often those we hold closest see the worst of us. I’ve help up my hands in frustration as those words rolled off my lips to one of my unsuspecting children. I’ve watched their faces fall, full of confusion about what the “it” is while stinging from words I’d never throw at a stranger in the street. These have been moments about which I am not proud. They’ve occurred when I’ve felt panic about some issue that did not deserve panic and frantic that my point needed to be understood NOW. I’ve let out an unholy, “You don’t get it!” at the children I love beyond all reason. I leveled it at my ex-husband (and he to me) too many times, and while I generally feel less remorse at that, I don’t doubt that the attitude that accompanies those words was some part of our undoing.

You don’t get it.

Whether written in an online rant or spoken aloud to another passenger on our planet, this phrase creates a hierarchical relationship where there shouldn’t be one or expands the gaps that naturally are between us. Between people in a friendship or partnership or even between debaters over a hot topic, “You don’t get it,” assumes that the speaker is privy to superior truths the listener or reader does not hold. The statement assumes a universal “it”. Add to that an innate desire to be understood by others, and it’s no wonder those words come out in times of stress and conflict. Perhaps what would be more true would be to say, “You don’t get me,” but that’s just too painful often to say. We want to be gotten, to be understood. And we’re often lousy accepting when what we understand to be true isn’t what another holds as true.

They don’t get it.

While the statement in the singular is a skewer designed to single out an individual, in the plural it’s a blunt tool designed to unite those who are already united and deepen the divide between “us” and “them”. Its hierarchical nature occurs on a larger scale, creating levels of understanding of the world (ours being better than theirs) rather than just circles of understanding coexisting side by side. When plural, this statement is almost never seeking greater understanding by the “they” but rather bemoaning just how dumb/incompetent/misguided/lost “they” are. There are no hearts, minds, souls, or votes won with those four words.

Here’s how I see it.

It’s time for a change in language. If you want to be understood by those around you, if you want your (limited, subjective) point of view out for others to consider (and accept or reject), face a few facts and change your language. My “it” and your “it” aren’t universal. My version of “it” is just that –my version. If my “it” is my theology or philosophy, that doesn’t make “it” any more irrefutable or holy to anyone other than me. “It” is most often is subjective and often bound by time, location, and the ever-changeable mind. Rarely is the “it” in “You don’t get it,” an irrefutable fact (as in “You don’t get it! Your shirt is on fire! Act now or die!”). It’s almost always subjective in nature. Changing language when communication would help. Use those ever-helpful “I” statements. “I feel/think/believe…” put the focus on the subjectivity of the “it”, which is appropriate. It decreases the pulling of rank that happens with “They/you don’t get it.” Owning beliefs is fine. Foisting your beliefs on another isn’t.

And that’s how I see it. 

Stand Up for Religious Freedom, UU Style

The phrase “religious freedom” seems to seep into far more political discussions than I recall from any election year in my memory.  I cycle between perplexed, appalled, and frightened at what is unfolding before us in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and other states, watching freedoms hard-gained become less accessible and downright vilified, all in the name of religious freedom and under the assumption that one’s beliefs trump another’s.  As a Unitarian Universalist who holds the right to religious freedom close to her heart, I’m appalled at how that ideal is being used today.

Today, Catholics around the country, lead by a long list of bishops, will attend events named ostensibly, “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies. When I first saw reference to one of these rallies, I smiled, naively creating an image of those of different religious traditions coming together to rally for greater acceptance of and tolerance for others of different faiths. I pictured Christians, Jews, Muslims, UUs, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Humanists, and others gathered together. I imagined people coming together to remind themselves and the US that part of the beauty of our nation is that we are each free to choose our own faith and practice it at long as it doesn’t infringe on our neighbor’s right to do the same.

I was wrong. These rallies are products of the Catholic church, a portion of whose members (and likely a majority of their clergy) are deeply opposed to the HHS mandate requiring employers like hospitals  to provide insurance that would cover comprehensive women’s health care, including contraception if the woman desires it. Even when Obama shifted the burden of payment for those services to the insurance companies, many Catholics were not mollified, and continued a cry that this is insufficient and that their religious freedoms are being are being trampled. I respect their right to gather and express their opinion. I mourn the religious intolerance behind a rally with such a hopeful name.

It all makes me even more glad to embrace a religion that understands the true meaning of that abused and misused phrase, religious freedom. The Unitarian Universalists get it, as do many other liberal traditions. As I understand it, religious freedom grants one the right to practice one’s own religion, leave one’s religion, join a different religion, ascribe to no religion at all, and speak about all those choices and religions in public. As  a UU, I embrace religious freedom when that definition is used.

Religious freedom is not an escape hatch for avoiding the law governing millions nor a route to foisting individual religious beliefs onto others. It’s not a route to forcing one’s morality on another. I respect the right of other adults to choose to use or not use contraception, to not have or not have an abortion, to receive or not receive a blood transfusion, to pray or not instead of seeking medical treatment, or otherwise manage their own health care. As adult religious individuals, those choices are theirs, as are the consequences of them.

I get it that it’s about paying for the services (and I’d again hold that these services should have the same co-pays that other services have). But what happens when an opposition to coverage for birth control and abortion isn’t enough extension of religious beliefs on those of other faiths? What will be the next items nixed from insurance coverage? Opting out of just a few services opens the door for employers of all faiths to opt our of more. What’s next to go?  HPV vaccinations? Treatment for Hepatitis C and B? AIDS treatment? Cervical cancer treatment? The treatment of breast cancer in women who used the Pill? These are the logical follow-ups to the path being paved today.

Religious freedom rights end where the next person’s begin. This is a fuzzy line that without constant attention can result in perceived or actual violations to either side. We are free to believe what we want to believe. When the term “religious freedom” is used. One UU principle speaks to the right of the individual to conduct a free and responsible search for meaning. This celebration of the importance of the search we all take, regardless of outcome, celebrates religious freedom.

One person’s beliefs don’t inform another person’s behavior and choices anymore than they inform another’s beliefs. When we veer from this — and we’re certainly doing that now — we deny others their freedom of religion. The religious is not the political and never should be. If there is any doubt that the blending of these will bite back, one only needs to remember a period in Britain’s history when attending other than the church du jour could result in beheading. There’s a reason religious freedom was cherished and nurtured when this country was founded. As we’ve become more diverse ethnically, racially, and religiously, we have all the more reason to remember and respect this American tenet.

My religion is just that. Mine. Yours is yours. Religious freedom exists when we remember that line between us and respect that each other’s views are valid belief structures for the other, not items to be hierarchically ranked. Neither need to threaten the other’s beliefs. If I’m awake and paying attention, I can continually learn from the beliefs of others, easing conversations and deepening respect. If I resort to a schema of religious hierarchy, assuming my choice is the one true choice, I lose this chance. Doors close. I lose contact with the neighbor that each religion calls on us to respect and love.

So while thousands or more rally today for the right to impose their beliefs on thousands or more of a variety of belief systems, I’ll reflect on true religious freedom. I’ll remember the places in the world where even today, belief in a faith other than the faith of the state means marginalization, imprisonment, or worse. I’ll look at and learn from the diverse beliefs of the people I know: Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Pagan, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, Atheist, Buddhist, and more. And I’ll rejoice that our beliefs can continue side-by-side for as long as we continue to make that our definition of religious freedom. Now that’s a rally I’ll attend.


One Rule to Bind Us

Poster available through Scarboro Missions.

I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten.  I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).

It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age.  It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media.  Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way.  No caveats, no disclaimers.  The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity. Continue reading

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.

What Do I Want for My Children?

What do I want for my children?  I think that question plagues every parent at least occasionally during child-rearing .  It certainly crosses my mind at least several dozen times a day.  Perhaps homeschooling makes that count a bit higher than average, but I doubt that number would be much different if their education wasn’t also on my plate.

So just what do I want for my children?  My standard answer is as follows:  I want my boys to be productive, contributing members of the world.  I want them to be moderately happy.  I want them to be tolerated by others of their species.  A bit low-reaching — even incomplete?  Nope.  That’s my list.  And it allows me plenty of room to love them unconditionally, correct them when they’re out of line, and teach them algebra and research paper writing.

But what about college?  Marriage and families?  Church membership?  Voting Democratic?

That all sounds fine to me, but those may not be their paths to happiness, productivity, and social acceptability.  Take happiness.  An Ivy League education won’t seal the deal for happiness any more than learning a trade or working on a ranch in Colorado.  Either way, you’re stuck with yourself, and unhappiness with yourself knows no economic, educational, or political boundaries.  Happiness won’t be found by gaining wealth, amassing friends on Facebook (really), or collecting every new electronic gizmo that comes along.  Sing it with me.  Happiness comes from within.  Misery comes from the same place.  What I want for my kids is an appropriate amount of the former, stemming from a good amount of self-knowledge tempered with love of that self, the others around them, and this universe we share.

Productivity is relative.  As an at-home, only occasionally-working-for-pay, homeschooling mom, I keep my self sane by reminding myself that all productivity isn’t tied to a paycheck or an office with a door.  Okay, I’d like to also see them in their own homes some day, although a communal farm or Buddhist monastery would fly, too.  I’d include financially independent, but who am I to say what sort of partnership them may form someday, what domestic agreements they’ll make?  It’s more than a hope for them economically.  It’s a hope for their hearts and souls.  I hope that the way they live in this world contributes goodness to it, either through their career choices or their general way of being on this planet.   I want them to add to the repair end — tikkun olam — more than the breaking end.

My line about tolerance by others is only a bit tongue in cheek.  With one child who is somewhat naturally oblivious to the habits of the humans in the world (but perfectly clear on cat social protocol), this is a serious challenge.  What passes as cute at ten (and far less does pass than it did at six) looks quirky at fifteen.  Nothing wrong with quirky — quirky works for all in this house.  But soon, ignoring the ways of the Earth’s most complicated species can make for a lonely life.  My younger’s Asperger’s makes learning the ways of the social human a fairly large, life-long project rather than a life-and-learn affair.  It takes loads of cues and commentary on what others might be thinking in a social situation.  His Asperger’s is going to stay with him, along with his green-grey eyes and love for complexity.  I’d not wish any of those to change.   Even for my neurotypical older son, getting along with others without being a sheep is a skill to learn and takes time to hone.   I’d like them to have friends as they go through life, so social awareness is part of the curriculum.

Ah, if it was that easy.  Have three simple goals.  Love my children.  Live our lives.  It’s not.  I’m pretty good at rationalizing most of the other stuff I do so it fits those goals, however.  Education tops my priority list.  Not for the sake of a particular diploma but as a path to choices.  My kids have (shifting) ideas about what they’d like to do when they’re older.  Neither mentions fast food counter work or anything requiring physical labor as goals, so we stay the course that offers the most options later on: we plan for college.  Not the stress-filled, do-it-all, kind of way to plan for college.  Not the lackadaisical, do-what-you-want way either.  We take the middle way, stressing strong reading, writing, and studying skills and enough science and math to open the doors in that direction should that be desired.

I wish just the social piece was easier.  I am not always sure when what I’m asking my younger son is for him and when it is for me.  Not the parts about not scratching certain regions in public or considering the feelings of other before making random comments that sound hilarious in his head.  I’m good with all of those, and those lessons are good for him.  Inhibiting shirt chewing (I often do) or insisting on eye contact (I try not to) are more questionable corrections.   Between the Asperger’s and, well, the being a boy thing both guys have going on, much of my girl-based social information seems suspect if not just irrelevant.  I’m best when I stick to the standards:  listen to others, chew with your mouth shut, and shower daily.

Even with the answer in place, I still ask myself — many times a day — what I want for my children.  It’s a reminder of what I hold important.  It’s a tug back to what’s truly important in their lives now and what is likely to be important later.  It holds me to those snarky, modest goals that aren’t really that modest after all.


Post Office Encounters

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and the stack of items for mailing was complete. Off to the post office I went, with one package heading for my nephew, three PaperBackSwap books seeking new homes, and one Very Important Envelope requiring delivery confirmation.

I doubt I like or dislike the post office any more or less than anyone else. Less than a mile away and on my general route to almost anywhere, it’s convenient. The wait times is lower than that of the post office of my youth, although whenever possible, I avoid the line for a clerk and used the automated kiosk.

Alas, the Very Important Envelope precluded use of my automatic friend. Eight days before Christmas, I’d have to wait my turn in line for a real person. The queue was surprisingly short for the time of year, but my stomach plunged when I saw the available clerks. There she was: my post office nemesis, whom, for convenience and politeness, I’ll call Nancy. Plenty of other names cross my mind when I see her, but none would be respectful or polite, and even if I knew her given name, using it here would be unwise.

I did what I do when Nancy is at the counter. I counted the people ahead of me and tried to estimate given package load of those customers and the status of the current transactions who’d be my clerk. I’ve repeated this ritual my past four trips in the counter line. It makes no difference in the outcome, of course. Every time, Nancy is mine.

Nancy and I go back about three months. Progeny in tow, I stopped by to mail some homeschooling curriculum (workbooks and a textbook) to family across the country. My automated friend doesn’t work for media mail, so I headed directly for the line. After a reasonable wait in line, I found myself in front of Nancy. Nancy asked the usual question about the contents of the package (bound, printed material, etc). I affirmed its acceptability for media mail status, adding that it was homeschooling curriculum.

Rule number one. No small talk or additional information with Nancy. A sharp look from her was followed by sharper retort that curriculum was not media. Thrown, I answered that I’d sent this type material several times. For years, in fact. I received it that way as well. It took a few minutes to convince her that we were indeed talking about the same thing: bound, printed material. She then proceeded to the questions regarding hazardous or fragile contents, firearms and the like. My children, sensing tension, decided to start talking. “What’s media mail, Mom?” my younger asked.

Rule number two. Don’t talk to Nancy about post office regulations of past or present. I answered my son, referring to the book rate designation of the past. “There was never a book rate,” interrupted Nancy. After a brief, stunned silence, I quietly returned that indeed there had been — I’d mailed many a book that way. From there, the conversation became bizarre. A tirade followed, a litany of items people attempted to mail via book rate (yes, she used the term freely at this point), including coats and car parts. She became combative, even starting in on homeschooling as well as postal crimes of the past. I used a tactic I’ve generally reserved for my younger son: I told her we needed to end this conversation, as it didn’t seem to be very productive. She harrumphed. We left.

As the fates would have it, I was to require counter service a few other times over the next few months. Once, my automated friend was out of service. Another time, I needed another media mail transaction mediated by a human. Each time, I found myself with Nancy. Even without any confrontational postal exchanges, I found myself sweaty and tense approaching the counter, bracing myself and using as few words as possible. Until last Saturday and the Very Important Envelope. I rarely have Very Important Envelopes to mail, and this was the first required certified mail and delivery confirmation. I perused the possible forms in the counter cubbies next to the line, choosing one that seemed promising, and approached the counter.

Rule number three. Don’t ask Nancy questions about post office stuff.  This seems counterintuitive, since she’s a postal worker and all, but trust me on this one.  Nancy rapidly listed what I needed, so I returned to the form area and produced three choices. Two were correct, and with some prompting, she agreed to tell me which two.  My additional questions to clarify some details were met with cryptic answers in an annoyed voice, but somehow I made it through with (I hope) the proper documentation required.  Somewhere in all this, I ended up mailing a 15 ounce, $15 paperback to Arizona for the $9.61.  I’m sure that was above and beyond for the eight days remaining until Christmas, but the transaction occurred without my involvement while I was figuring out the Very Important Envelope’s journey.  I briefly questioned Nancy about that and was quickly rebuked.  I let it go.

I left fatigued and irritated.  As with the other Nancy encounters, I also was a bit shaken, wondering how someone could get through each day with that much hostility and anger. I also left wondering what I can learn about me from Nancy and folks like her. I wonder if those encounters could be spiritual work.

I can’t change Nancy, but I can change my response to Nancy. Okay, I could also change my post office, but that would be pretty inconvenient.  I didn’t exactly enter these encounters with good will and patience, at least not after the first one.  I entered tense and ready for conflict.  I never swore or treated her disrespectfully, but I was hardly warm and compassionate.  And Nancy did not disappoint.  I almost wonder if she enjoys seeing customers squirm as their blood pressure rises.  So I wonder what would change, at least for me, if I greeted all that vitriol and unhelpfulness with a smile and warm comment.  Would she respond by softening?  Maybe, but that’s not the main question (although that would be a fine outcome).  What matters would be what happened inside me.  I just might soften, and I’d likely leave far less shaken, irritated, and fatigued.  I might even walk away with a smile, if for nothing else than the knowledge that I’d not allowed another person’s misery to become mine.  Certainly, it’s worth a try.


Spirituality and this Unitarian Universalist

I’ve been delving into my spiritual and religious past lately, looking for connections and direction, watching for patterns, and pondering plenty.  So when  Rev. Alex Riegel’s piece, What Does the Word “Spirituality” Mean? (the first of three posts on spirituality), appeared a few weeks back, linking on to Doug Muder’s blog post, Spirituality and the Humanist, my mind started working on what exactly spirituality is.  I don’t expect to nail it down here, but perhaps rather work a bit on what it means to me now.  Since all I have is me and now, that seems appropriate.

Doug Muder, UU/Humanist and writer of Free and Responsible Search, sums up spirituality thus: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.  Alex, Unitarian Universalist minister,  sees spirit as our true nature, hidden by our mental, emotional, and physical selves.  The spirit is what remains when the ego is silent.  Doug mentions meditation, and those moments of what can’t be described when sitting, breathing, and, well, doing nothing.  Alex mentions meditation, chant, and yoga as opportunities to touch the spiritual.  Alex maintains the paths to the spiritual are with us, in the spiritual texts that have survived centuries, millennia even. Doug, in contrast, references nature and mathematics, citing Archimedes instead.

Do those definitions of spirituality hold for me?  Well, yes.  And, no.

I’m not a theist.  I’m not an atheist either.  At this writing, I believe in something bigger than the individual yet not what some call God.  I’m  not terribly concerned about what to call it, or the true nature of that whatever that is actually is.  Our minds, amazing tools that they are, aren’t it.  Our bodies and emotions aren’t it either.  All are too fallible, to0 changeable, to be all that can be.   When we touch the something within us as individuals or as larger collections of humans that goes beyond our minds, bodies, and feelings, I’d say we’re in the realm of the spiritual.

Like Doug maintains, the spiritual is in that gap where words fail us.  Not that learning more words (or more science) can erase spirituality.  Understanding of the mechanisms of the human body or the cosmos (and on the latter my understanding is minimal), doesn’t decrease my sense of wonder of our existence and the existence of the universe.  If anything, the incredible complexity of this world and beyond deepen my wonder and reverence.  That reverence is spiritual.  In that moment where all drops away –when I drop away — is a spiritual experience.

It’s markedly similar to the lack of self sometimes present when gazing at my children.  For a moment, one will awe me, silencing my thoughts leaving only my essence that knows no words.  All the words, harsh and loving, fall away.  What remains is connectedness and wonder.  It’s not the rush of love that follows that moment of awe.  It’s what comes before my heart feels and my mind adds words.

I’ve found these moments in meditation, but not as often.  I’m hardly an accomplished meditator.  I’m inconsistent and impatient.  I’ve yet to practice with enough regularity to call my mediation attempts serious spiritual practice, and I lack the drive in that direction to make that change happen.  Chant has offered windows to the spiritual, longer looks, in fact, than I find in nature and my children.  Those glimpses of the transcendent part of life pull into longer gazes during chant.  Like meditation, I’ve only experienced that leap in fits and spurts.  Yoga, similarly, has offered moments of spiritual experience, but these are brief. My formal spiritual practice has been less than focused.

For me, spirituality is these tiny moments along with all that surrounds those moments.  Losing myself for even a few seconds while hiking through the woods makes the walk spiritual.  The flash of connection I sometimes experience in the meeting-house is deeply spiritual, as is the brief loss of ego in a generally fidgety sitting for meditation.  The brief connection sanctifies the experience.  Or something like that.

Those moments feed me, reminding me I am but part of a larger whole.  They remind me I’m more than my ever-changing thoughts and feelings, that we’re all more than the sum of those elements with which we most often identify. They are not, however, an endpoint.  Living a spiritual life, at least for this UU, means moving beyond those moments, taking the connections to the all gained in a spiritual experience with me to energize the rest of my life.  It fuels my quest to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, to strive for justice, to love unconditionally, to let go of transgressions, to care for this world.   So informed, those acts become spiritual acts — spiritual practice even.

For me, these internal and external spiritualities complement each other.  When I’m taking the time to quiet my mind, body, and heart, I touch the spiritual part of life.  The more I touch that part, even for an instant, the better I carry peace and love to those whose lives I touch.  When I ignore the internal, contemplative end, I’m more stingy with that love and peace, perhaps because it is just less familiar.  When I reach out, practicing love and peace, I find it with more ease when I turn inside.  And so it goes, spiraling outward and inward at once.

An internal spiritual fest without external expression in life is incomplete.  Whatever practice one chooses, whatever silences the bounding mind and those churning feelings, reminds one of the peace possible.  Keeping that peace to oneself is insufficient.  It’s in the living, our spirituality is fully expressed.



Prayer Problems

This week left me ragged.  It left me exhausted, depleted, and shaken.  Full of personal and interpersonal trials, it tried my mind and spirit dearly.  It’s the sort of week that turned my thoughts to prayer.

That’s a problem.  Concerns about prayer contributed substantially to my conversion from liberal Christian to spiritual seeker and Unitarian Universalist. (Note:  Not all UUs agnostics or atheists.  Some are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, and/or something else.)  I’d prayed for years.  I can’t recall a dinner at home that didn’t start with grace: “God is Good” or “Come, Lord, Jesus” were standby rhymed prayers in our home, with freestyle grace led by Dad on special occasions. Thanking the divine for was the first purpose of prayer I learned. Other rote prayers followed.

In my Methodist Sunday School class, The Lord’s Prayer was a third-grade memorization task.  While I wasn’t in the sanctuary much at that age, I had plenty of seat-time invested in the Jesuit-led, Catholic community that made up church part two on most Sundays, and I’d long learned their version.  My challenge in 9 a.m. Methodist Sunday School was to stick the ending, since that was different from what I heard each Sunday at noon.  Aside from the sung Doxology, the Protestant portion of my spiritual life provided only prayer as soliloquy, with the minister at the pulpit delivering it.

As I moved to Catholic school in my middle and high school years, continuing my religious formation there more than in the Methodist home of my elementary years, I picked up the other Catholic basics.  It was, however, a prayer class in high school that was instrumental into shaping my perception of prayer and its many roles.  We were taught that prayer had four forms:  giving thanks, intercession for others, praising God, and petitioning for one’s own needs.  We examined Catholic prayers, which promptly went from rote and empty to filled with purpose.  We meditated to mantras, focused on candles, reflected to music, studied the Psalms, and wrote our own prayers.   A year or two later, a Catholic youth group furthered that understanding, expanding my understanding as prayer as conversation with God.  Prayer moved from rote to intentional.

I believed deeply.  Not in a punishing, restrictive God, but rather in a loving God, one who wanted the best for us but left the details of that up to us.  God as father and mother appealed to me, perhaps since 19, I’d lived without parents in close proximity.  My view of God offered me the intimacy and security of a relationship with a being who would never abandon me and loved me despite what I saw as innumerable, fatal flaws (at least fatal to human relationships).  And, for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t.

Somewhere in the last decade, I started to question.  Not profoundly, but just in the usual ways that people question when they ask hard questions that are no longer satisfied by short answers.  Specifically, I questioned petition and intercession.  Why would a loving deity — unconditionally loving and forgiving — act for someone for whom I prayed?  What about all the people in hard times who had no one to pray for them?  Why would this loving deity only act for those who others remembered first?  What was the purpose of praying for what I wanted or needed — or even for guidance — if we have free will?  And again, where did this leave those who didn’t pray?  What kind of divine being would only respond and comfort those who contacted him/her first?

Prayer fell first.  The rest of faith soon followed.

Old habits die hard, however.  While my understanding of what exists beyond the individual human is still in formation, my long-held view of the divine no longer remains.  But in times of extreme stress, I often myself starting a prayer only to find myself stumped after the salutation.  Do I address my plea to the universe?  Do I take my delight in the sleeping form of my son  or the setting sun to the wheel of chance or to the universe?  How do I take another person or nation into my heart with love and wish them well?  And does any of that matter?  How do we reach out of ourselves to that which is bigger than the individual?  How do our depths touch those when we cannot actually reach out and touch them?   It’s intercession that, as much as it troubles me in theory, that tugs at me the most.

This week was one of those weeks, a week where I wished I knew how to make this part of my agnosticism work.  Plenty of my ilk rely on social action, on any scale, as the answer.  It certainly play a leading role.  It does not, however, answer every concern of this heart.  Sometimes there isn’t an action to take, aside from in our own hearts.  I’m playing with voicing concerns and intentions in two-word mantras, matching the words to my breath.  With this modified meditation, I can later bring those two words back in a stressful situation.  “Pause, praise,” increases my ability to not chew a child to bits during a rough homeschooling moment.  “Live love” is another pairing that focuses my intentions.

That’s not the whole answer, but it may be a start. Directing the heart and mind may be the bulk of prayer, creating a space within where one can listen to more than the firing of one’s own neurons and find meaning beyond the confines of the body of one.  I’m a big logic and reason fan, but loving isn’t about logic and reason, and neither is prayer.