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.


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.


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.

Transition Lenses

Truth be told, I don’t transition easily.  That’s no shock to my friends and likely explains a bit for my acquaintances and meeting cohorts, but somehow, my reaction to shifts in routine, location, or even the weather still catches me by surprise.

This time, I’m just a few hours back from a fine three days away with my One Good Friend (main squeeze, significant other, whatever).  Three days of hiking through the woods and fields of the middle of southern Michigan, canoeing on the Kalamazoo river, eating meals neither of us had cook, and enjoying general companionship with one of my favorite adults.  While the trip relaxed and renewed me, by the last day, I was itching to write.  While we delightfully drew out the last day, taking the long way home to hike Hidden Lake Gardens and stalled the journey’s end with a meal just minutes from home, I was eagerly anticipating an evening alone at home before my boys return tomorrow morning.  I had it all planned out.  I’d unpack enough to throw a deserving load of laundry in, read through the mail, check for phone messages, and settle into write.  An impromptu trip to a small publishing company in Marshall reignited my book-writing fire, and sleep had challenged me the previous two nights as I tried to recall my outline for my book, a list written last summer and revisited since only by accident when shuffling through my files.  With a few chores out of the way and a full stomach, what barriers between me and writing could arise?

Me.  That’s the barrier.  Not the house.  Not the return to responsibility.  Not the shift from half of a duo to all of a solo.  Just my general difficulty moving from one mindset to another.  New shoes?  I need several days or more to adjust.  Expecting oatmeal for breakfast and find the canister empty?  Briefly consider a run to the store, ruminate about toast, and eventually make do.  My ex-husband has to swap a planned night with the kids for another night?    Silence.  Long silence.  Perhaps a verbal pause or so, all the while mind whirling and readjusting expectations, with (generally) calm acquiescence.   While I handle transitions far better now than even ten years back, I still find they leave me stunned, either speechless or overflowing with (generally the wrong words).

A few years back, my older son, tired of bright sun in his eyes during soccer games, tried those lenses that transition from sunglass-like in the daylight to almost clear glass inside.  Data indicated that they’d shift in a minute, making for visual comfort in no time at all, no matter what the lighting.  My son was excited, at least initially.  It turns out a minute is a long time when you walk into a dimly lit house after being out in the sun.  It turns out to be too long, at least for my then 11-year old son, who ditched the transitioning lenses for good-old clear polycarbonate at his next annual exam.  Seems the transition time just didn’t work for him.

My brain often feels like those glasses when a sudden change occurs.  I knew that the move from vacation to home would be rough.  I knew I’d likely feel at loose ends and a bit lonely after several days of companionship.  I planned accordingly, parsing out chores and writing, planning for a glass of wine at 7 or so, with a snack at 9.  Surely, with all that planning, the transition would be barely noticeable.

Upon arriving home, I stalled my reentry a bit longer, chatting with a neighbor for a while before even opening my front door.  Once she returned to her gardening, I unpacked the car, cleaning up a bit as I went.  Since that process was surprisingly swift without two boys to prod along, I quickly moved to laundry and guinea pig care before settling down to write.

But my mind went silent, dark as could be.  The stillness I’d sought quickly became unbearable.  Unwilling or unable to let my emotions and thoughts adjust, I read email, surfed Facebook, checked my voicemail, and generally fidgeted in body and mind, fighting the angst.  No luck.  My tension continued to mount, and I continued to fight.  I was furious and took myself to task.  I’d been eagerly anticipating this time without child or One Good Friend to start work on a writing project (at best) or to blog (not a bad choice either).  I’d spent two days with my mind flooding with ideas and energy, and here was my chance.  And I was blowing it.

But I was sad and lost.   A bit lonely, even. And simply out of sorts, dark lenses in a dark house.

When I could acknowledge that pain, the tears came.  Not the long, jagged tears soul-wrenching events evoke, but just some sad tears to honor change.  I also messaged a few friends, sharing a bit of my sorrow and quickly moving on to other subjects.  Before long, the lenses had cleared, just a hint of tint from my trip remaining, enough to remind me and bring a smile.

Like my younger son (although to a lesser degree), change challenges me, stalls me out or induces stonewalling and anger.  Sometimes, that emotion flies out.  Often it turns in, tying me up in knots until I face it and allow it simply to be.  Disapproving of my feelings during my transition today didn’t alter the feeling.  Acknowledging it, sharing it, and letting it pass on its own did.   I’m not ever likely to be free-wheeling and easygoing with transitions, and that’s okay.  Just honoring that part of me makes all the difference and makes that transition time less distressing.





Planning for the transition didn’t ease the transition at all


When God Enters the Room

I don’t think a work day goes by without a patient referring to God.  Not in the form of, “Oh, God, not herpes?!”  No, when God comes into the exam room, it’s personal.

Sometimes, God enters the room by way of explanation, as in, “God healed me of my bunion.”  Other times, God is beckoned in:  “Lord, help me with this pain.”  Sometimes the reference to the Almighty seems to be a hint or prayer, “Well, I’ll be over this bug by the weekend, God willing.”   God gets the thanks for the good and exhorted for help when times are tough.  No response from me is required in these events, and I just continue on with the medical portion of the program.

I’m more stymied by the folks who enter longer conversations about the divine, assuming that my belief is like theirs.  “God is always testing us, isn’t He?  But the Lord would never give us anything we couldn’t handle.”  I generally listen quietly and nod a bit in a way that I hope shows I’m paying attention without having to enter the conversation.  It’s a struggle, and sometimes I err on the side of some false belief, if it seems an answer beyond, “Mmm,” is called for.  I don’t make up a faith statement or anything that deceptive.  Rather I try to frame my answer in a broader way. “The world is mysterious, isn’t it?” or “Life is challenging,” are favorite phrases.  “I’m glad your faith is supporting you in this time,” is another, although I pull that one our less often

I often wonder if folks notice we’re not connecting on the God issue.  No one has called me on it, although a handful have preached aplenty during those short appointments.  I doubt their preaching in response to my noncommittal responses, since during the more intense monologues, no response is sought.  I’ve never been asked directly if I believe in God, which seems fair, given I’d hope their interest is more about my credibility as their Physician Assistant.  About that, I’m glad to share.

I’ve worked with practitioners with a more traditional sense of God, and some have shared their faith with their patients when their patients initiate the contact.  It seems to have comforted their patients to make that connection, even if it’s just a more enthusiastic response from the practitioner than, “Mmm.”  It’s a connection in the partnership of patient and provider.  It’s not necessary, and I’m pretty good at connecting with patients in other ways, fostering a therapeutic partnership, but it seems to occasionally be a nice extra.

I’m sure this is far more of an issue in my mind that it is in reality.  Most stuff is.  Some of my concerns have more to do with my own wonderings about the divine than any actual tension with patients.  I do want to support my patients’ faith even if I don’t share it.  That’s part of being a Unitarian Universalist:  acceptance of others and encouragement of spiritual growth. And since involvement in prayer and meditation may be an asset to health, I have a professional interest as well.  I’ve counseled many an anxious patient on mindful meditation with a focus on the breath or a single word.  A few have returned to tell me how that practice has been helpful, so those minutes haven’t been wasted.

Faith is a source of comfort.  Whether that faith is in an omnipotent God outside of ourselves, in the mysterious workings of the universe, or the best nature of the human self, having faith brings strength.  Over the years, I’ve mused here and in my head about the nature of God or whatever is bigger than our egoic self.  I’ve wed myself to no particular theology, but know that for me, God/ground of being/the divine isn’t the guy in the sky pulling the strings.  It’s not something or someone to worship and bow down to.  It may be the best in us when we bind together or some energy of the universe.  It may simply be our best self, full of unconditional love.  I don’t know.

For all my uncertainty about God and what to do when God enters the room at work or elsewhere, I know what I can do.  I can respect the other’s beliefs, as different from my own as they may be.  I can recognize them as valuable to and valid for them, knowing we can hold different views on faith and still be okay.  I can live my faith and honor theirs, despite our differences, and that’s all that’s needed.


Responding to Osama bin Laden’s Death/Wrath and Patience (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 5)

Having retired early Sunday evening, I met the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on Monday morning.  A day late, I scanned the online edition of the New York Times, skimming for details, before clicking through to the video of Obama’s Sunday night announcement.

I’m sure he said what he was supposed to say.  I’m sure ending by invoking God’s protection of our human-created country is the politically correct way for the president of our country to respond.  Whatever one calls what is beyond the individual (God, Allah, Jehovah, Goddess, Ground of Being, or humanity), I don’t think that being blesses any one transient, human-created, humanity-dividing nation.  Especially when that nation is rejoicing the death of other humans.  Even when the target committed atrocious acts.

All that came to mind at that moment was Sunday’s sermon:  Wrath and Patience.  Wrath isn’t anger.  Anger is a feeling, a passing feeling, as is sadness, happiness, disappointment, worry, and a host of others.  If we pay attention to it or egg it on, it stays and grows.  Anger is a normal human response.  We all experience it, some of us more than others.  Anger, on its own, hurts no one.  It’s all in what we do with it.  Breathe through it, acknowledging the feeling and addressing appropriate internal and external triggers, and it goes away on its own.  Really.

Nurture it, feed it with thoughts and energy, call it righteous  and let it rule you, and anger can turn to wrath.  Wrath is the vice, not anger.  According Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, wrath is :

: strong vengeful anger or indignation
: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime : divine chastisement
Wrath is rage, often turned outward.  Wrath takes the feeling of anger and gives it the power to destroy ourselves and others, psychologically or physically.
I’ve experience wrath more times than I can remember.  Generally, the pattern is thus:  I sense a threat to my security from someone close to me, feel anger rising out of fear (of loss of control of a situation, of being misunderstood, or whatever.  I’m mad.).  I have a choice.  Either count to 10 or 100, breathing, letting the strong feeling pass into the ether with all other feelings or let it build.  Let’s say I take the latter.  I’m excessively verbal by nature, but when angry, my words can become more prolific and more biting.  The more I go on, well, the more I go on.  And on.  Ask my ex.  Ask my family.  They know all too well.
Somewhere along the line, anger morphs into wrath.  I’m indignant and everyone is going to get an earful.  My victims would say that my tirade is retribution enough to count as wrath, and they’d likely be right.  Caught up in my own selfish righteousness, I ride my own hot air.  It’s not pleasant.
The aftermath, for me, is remorse.  In particularly challenging situations (the ones that threaten my sense of self and security the most)are the ones where that wrath may cool and return at the least provocation, followed again by remorse.  It’s rather embarrassing to admit that pattern, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one to whom this occurs.  (An “amen” here would be quite comforting.)
Back to the killing of Osama bin Laden (and plenty of others along the way to him).  I’ll not debate the right or wrong of killing a killer here.  I’m a pacifist by nature and upbringing, but that’s not the point.  It’s not his death that shook me.  It was the response of the people, Americans, to that death.  The cheers and celebrations on the news in the restaurant we patronized last night.  The language used by reporter and our president himself:  “Indeed, al Qaeda slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
That’s wrath.  Welcoming the death of another, regardless of his or her crimes, is an expression of wrath.  Wrath is a vice.  It doesn’t bring us closer to unconditional love.  It doesn’t bind us together, not out of love, anyway.
I knew no one who died on September 11, 2001.  I mourned with the nation while I held my infant in my arms, wondering what kind of world would there be for my son and his older brother.  As I rocked and nursed my small one, I watched the news as we bombed Afghanistan and sought out bin Laden.  I felt sorrow, fear, and uncertainty.  I felt confusion and despair.  And I felt angry.  Some of that anger was directed at the organizations that shape young people into killers and veil it in the name of any deity.  Some was reserved for my own country and the destruction we wrought upon an already poor and suffering nation in the name of justice and retribution.   But wrath?  No.
Wrath’s corresponding virtue is patience.  Patience with ourselves, that the anger we feel welling within us and threatening to boil over is transient, if we ride the wave and let it pass.  Patience with nonviolent responses on violent actions, reminding ourselves that nonviolence has a powerful history of making change.  Patience with the wrath of others, knowing how quickly we all can travel from feeling of anger to the irreversible and damaging actions of wrath.
So that’s where I am.  I’ve allowed my initial anger with the enthusiasm so many Americans expressed upon the announcement of bin Laden’s death.   So, too, has passed my anger with Obama’s response.   All that remains is patience for peace.

Sloth and Diligence (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 4)

Part 4 in a series of posts reflecting on the vice and virtue sermons at UUCF.

Sloth is easy:  easy to write about, easy to identify in my life, easy to see in the world.   Heck, it’s easy to be slothful.  I do it every day.   Sloth as vice is not, as the sermon states, about being generally lazy.  I’m sometimes good at that, too.  Sloth as vice is, instead “falling asleep; being lazy about one’s spiritual agenda.”   Ouch.  Slothfulness, per the sermon, moves one in a direction away from the self and is a resistance to getting on with spiritual work.  Yow.

I spend a good amount of time thinking and writing about my spiritual life and matters of the cave of the heart.  I enjoy reading about spirituality, although little of that reading is of sacred writings.  I seek and appreciate time to discuss my musings in blog posts and with a few friends.  I consider myself a spiritual seeker.

I don’t spend much time in formal spiritual practice.  I don’t take time to shut down my brain and just be.  My meditation times are brief, and sloth is part of the equation.  I could set an alarm and start the day with yoga, chant, and meditation rather than waiting for my younger to wake me when he greets the day, sometime between 7 and 7:30 each morning.  I could seek refuge in my room midday, taking just fifteen minutes just be.  I could take a few minutes before bed for stillness in the dark, letting the day wash away before I drop into sleep and prepare to start all over again the next day.

Is that sloth?  Perhaps.  But as I’ve noodled on this for the last several weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the serious lack of attention to my spiritual self that I initially thought it was.  My spiritual practice extends (or should extend) to every encounter I have with self, other, and world.  My spiritual practice includes the way I respond to a crabby child, the time I take to listen to the birds outside my window, and the kindness I afford myself after I’ve done the previous two with less-than-ideal attention and compassion.  Lack of attention to my relationships is sloth as well, and, if sloth can be graded on a scale, I’d put sloth in right relations as a more serious voice than sloth in personal spiritual practice.

However, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that if you’re not in a healthy spiritual place that you’re unlikely to be able to be in right relations with others.  I can maintain my recycling and earth-friendly gardening practices even when I’m totally out of balance spiritually.  When I’ve neglected my spiritual practice for too long, I’m still a polite driver, pleasant customer, and diplomatic meeting participant.  It’s the closer relationships that suffer the most.  It’s the matters closest to the heart that are out of sorts.  My children and my beloved take the biggest hits.  And I’m not as peaceful inside, either.  Not that I’m a screaming lunatic when I haven’t meditated in a while, but I’m more likely to slip into a snarky or angry response just when love and compassion are for what the situation truly calls.

There is a connection, although how one reaches that place of balance is up to one’s choosing.  A good kirtan session carries me quite awhile, and chant on my own works nicely as well.  Maintaining a meditation practice still eludes me, but I know I’ve reaped the benefits of the practice those times I’ve put the time onto the cushion.  For others, prayer is the answer, while some silent the mind by running or biking. Writing is part of my spiritual practice, although it’s too “in my head” to be truly transcendent.  It’s a big player, however.  When I’m writing regularly, I’m more at peace and better able to maintain healthy, loving relationships with others.  It may not silent my mind, but it focuses my mind to a single point — the words on the page.  For me, that’s restorative and centering.

The antidote to and corresponding virtue of sloth is diligence:  sticking to the path of mindfulness.  Mindfulness, or focusing attention one thing at a time, is the essence of spiritual practice.  Whether the mind is on the breath or the step,  the dishes or the crying child, the mind has only one focus.  That’s hard to achieve, especially in a world of chirping cell phones, tinkling email boxes, flashing TV sets, and even black and white e-book readers.    By diligently monitoring our minds and our hearts, watching the rabbit trails that lead us away from the person in front of us or the task at hand, we takes steps away from sloth and toward a compassionate, attentive life.

Greed and Charity (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 3)

Part 3 of a series of posts reflecting on the Vice and Virtue series of sermons at UUCF.

Nobody expresses unconditional love better than the Sufi poets. (Image by Mara from Flicker)

Nobody expresses unconditional love better than the Sufi poets. (Image by Mara from Flicker)

The third in a series of sermons on Vice and Virtue explored greed. While, as Rev. Alex Riegel pointed out, the root of lust and gluttony is pleasure-seeking, the root of greed is different. Over the last third of his sermon, Alex builds an argument I’d summarize as follows. Greed, the need to accumulate things, money, and even approval, stems from fear that one’s needs will not be met another way. It is “a compensation for a sense of scarcity in (one’s)self.” Secondly, charity, or unconditional love, the balancing virtue to greed, is the state of not needing, not having conditions on love. This virtue occurs when others are not a means to our ends and when our attachment to getting from another isn’t present.

As I’ve explored the part greed place in my life, I’ve felt a bit embarrassed, which is likely why it’s taken me a few weeks to get this post completed. As way of partial explanation but not at all as excuse, I’m a worrier. I’m a free-range worrier, shifting my focus of concern as life proceeds. As a student, I worried about getting good grades to the point of avoiding classes that I wasn’t certain in which I’d earn an A. As an adult, my worries shifted to money, and I worried about having enough in the bank to survive some disaster I couldn’t even imagine, such as disability making my then-husband and I unable to work; then about disease or special needs of a child that would require deep pockets; and more recently about taking care of myself and my children after divorce. Now I worry about retirement and my later years, although at 41 those are ages. I will stand by fiscal planning as prudent and responsible, but it is small step from careful to greed, and I am not certain I know where that line lies.

Charity may be that line, however fuzzy, between responsibly planning for the family and hoarding. Giving to others in time, goods, or money, without expecting anything in return:  that’s charity.  It’s a short bridge from charity to another way to look at this virtue — unconditional love.  Soon into Alex’s discussion of greed, he moves his focus to unconditional love, love without conditions.  Love of a child that doesn’t rely on needing the child to behave in a certain way or of a spouse that doesn’t rely on specific feedback from that spouse are two examples.

I interrupt these musings to supply some context.  I missed the live delivery of this sermon and was grateful to have a pair of 20 minute car trips during which to listen to this sermon in relative peace.  Both boys read the drive away, but then we came close to their Dad’s house.  It was dusk, and my younger needed to pick up his piano books at his Dad’s so he could practice at home.  Only he didn’t see why he should get out of the car to get them (his shoes were off, for reasons I don’t understand).  He thought either his brother or I should get out.  For his books.  That he left.

I blew up.

I blew up right in the middle of blissfully listening about the virtue of unconditional love. I was there, listening and nodding away.  Then I was gone, yelling at my younger guy who (it turned out) was afraid to walk outside in the dark alone, even just the 15 feet from the well-lit car to the well-lit door.  All I wanted was to listen about love and lack of need from others, and he had to ruin it with his big stink, darn it.  How dare reality intrude upon my mind like that.

It’s not like I recovered right away.  As he finally made his way up the walkway (his dad came to the door of the house, likely drawn by the noise of my yelling, so my younger felt safe to scurry up and get his books), my older said something that irked me the wrong way.  Honestly, he could have told me he loved me at that moment, and I’d have likely bitten off his head.   I recall what I took as a criticism of my parenting and snapped away at him, too.  Nice job, Mom.  Way to unconditionally love.

Okay, so I have some work to do here.  I know most of my rants at the kids have to do with me not feeling they’ve met my expectations, and a few are overflow from leftover emotion that has nothing to do with them.  I don’t have a goal to be all sugar to my kids all the time.  I’m their mom, not their best friends.  Sometimes the best way to love them is to tell them what isn’t helping them live in community with me and each other.  After all, unconditional love isn’t meant to be exhausting, and it’s not about folks walking all over you.  But I’d like to keep a better watch on the way I remind them of their responsibilities, leaning toward more charitable language and less, well, of the other stuff.  Even when it means missing part of a great sermon.

Defining Love

I love you.  So far today, I’ve said that to two people, one cat, and (in my head) my cup of coffee.  Over the past few days, I’ve mentioned loving brownies, coffee (again), Pad Thai, the New York Times, time to write, time to read, time with my One Good Friend, my One Good Friend himself, my parents, my BBF, silence, and functioning indoor plumbing.  In contrast, my younger son hasn’t told anyone that he’s loved them in at least a year.  Okay, he slips with the cats but usually catches himself and corrects the statement of one to of “like”.  He admits he’s a bit foggy on what love is, and just from a quick survey of my recent use of the word, I can see why he’s cautious and confused.  Poor kid.

Enter Valentine’s Day, a day for expressing love from the lusty to the maternal largely via the commercial.  I’ve never been a big VD fan, although I can’t think of a year from the age of 5 onward where I ignored it all together.  As an elementary aged child, Valentine’s Day meant painstakingly making (my mom insisted, at least until 2nd grade) valentines for the 30-odd people in my class.  After that point, she realized the pain of pushing me through that task probably negated the positive feelings the effort was designed to engender.  I’m not sure which task was more odious:  cutting and pasting for hours or carefully selecting appropriate messages for each of my classmates out of a box of Peanuts cards that inevitably had too many potentially loaded wishes and far too few benign wishes of just a greeting for the day.

While dating and then married, I acknowledged the day by exchanging cards and small gifts with my partner, a practice extended to my kids once they came around.  As my mother had done, I insisted on homemade cards for their classmates, complete with the requisite whining from them.  Fortunately, homeschooling brought an end to that family tradition, and our responsibilities for this day of (somewhat forced) expressions of caring decreased.  Still, we celebrated, mostly with chocolate and cards for the boys, cards for parents made by boys (I could never resist the continued torture), and small tokens between my then-husband and me.  The day was a family affair rather than a romantic one, as we celebrated our love for each other.  Hallmark made a bit of money, since my then-husband and I didn’t extend the card-making ritual to ourselves, instead purchasing cards for our children and parents.

This year, I ignored Valentine’s Day at home.  I mailed a cards out to my parents, enjoying writing messages of love and appreciation to them, but the kids and I skipped the day at home.  I’m not sure why I’ve adopted domestic apathy about the day, since I’ve always held that it was more about stimulating the economy than celebrating love.  The boys don’t seem to mind the omission, so I can’t see us starting that habit up again.  Even my One Good Friend and I ignored the day; indeed, we never even spoke about the holiday as it pertained to the two of us.  He’s not a fan of obligatory gift giving (or receiving) instead favoring giving something to another when the opportunity arises naturally, and I’m fine with that.

I really understand Marion's attraction to this Robin Hood. Thank you, BBC.

But back to love.  According on Merriam Webster Online, love as a transitive verb is defined as follows:

1. to hold dear :cherish
2. a to feel a lover’s passion, devotion, or tenderness for
b (1):caress(2): to fondle amorously(3): to copulate with
3 to like or desire actively : take pleasure in <loved to play the violin>
4 to thrive in <the rose loves sunlight>
Yikes.  No wonder my Aspie son is confused.  Even the dictionary makes use of the word a potential for great misunderstanding.  To say one loves Lord of the Rings (he does, per definition 3), loves mom (I like to say he does, per definition 1), and loves our current foster cat (probably definition 1 as well) is a conundrum as it is.  While he has little (if any) understanding of the feeling behind the second definition, he certainly knows that he feels nothing for me or the cat-like what Robin Hood feels for Maid Marion, and Robin says he loves Marion.  What to do?  His answer:  stop using that dangerous word.  Who knows what others might understand you to mean?
It’s confusing for the rest of us as well.  Even when we limit the verb to human relationships, it’s a minefield.  I’ve said, “I love you,” and meant, “I need you.”  I’ve whispered it, not declaring my deepest compassion and care for a person, but really saying,”But do this my way.”  I’ve said it pleadingly, in desperation, full of fear of being alone.  I’ve said it as an excuse for causing suffering, rather than an apology.  All of those times I cared.  All of those times, I thought I was speaking out of love.  I don’t doubt my sincerity, even now, just my understanding.
However, over the years, especially the recent few, my understanding of love has broadened greatly.  When I was Christian, the love of an omnipotent God gave me comfort and served as a model for how to love others.  At my Catholic wedding, one of the readings from Corinthians 13:4:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4
That’s pretty standard fare at most Christian weddings, and it holds truth reaching far beyond that belief system.
As I’ve reached more toward Eastern religions and philosophy, I’ve found Buddhist thoughts on love a deepening my understanding of that Christian teaching.  Buddhism speaks of the Four Immeasurables:  the  qualities of true love that are without measure because, if practiced,  they continue to grow, eventually reaching the whole world.”  These four are love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  Love, according to Thich Nhat Hahn in Teachings on Love, it “the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness.”  It requires understanding of the other, understanding of “the needs, aspirations, and suffering” of the beloved.  That’s harder than it seems, and that, according to Buddhism, is just the first step to true love.  Compassion (intending to decrease sorrow), joy (rejoicing in the peace and contentment of all), and equanimity (that’s the detachment one — think no clinging or discrimination) are also required.
So it seems love isn’t any easier to live than to define.  I can cut myself some slack (compassion) for missing the love boat so many times over the past 41 years.  I’m still not sure how to explain love to my younger son, but perhaps his reluctance to use the word without a clear understanding of it shows wisdom beyond his years.  I’m all for working toward the love described in Corinthians and in Buddhist teachings, no matter how hard the course.  Unlike my younger, I’ll not give up saying “I love you” while I work to figure out exactly what true love looks like in real life, but I will try to reduce my casual use of the word, at least when it comes to coffee and indoor plumbing.  And as for my One Good Friend, my kids, my parents, and the rest?  I love you.  And I’m working on living that.