Thoughts and Prayers

Harvey, Irma, Maria.

Thoughts and prayers.

Orlando, Plano, Las Vegas.

Thoughts and prayers.

Trayvon, Philando, Tamir. 

Thoughts and prayers.

Travel bans, hate crimes, DACA.

Thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers. Those words fill my Facebook feed,  but they are meager offerings in the face of yet another tragedy at the hands of a man with a gun. They leave the mouths of our elected leaders, yet those words don’t finance rebuilding a distant and brown part of the United States or bring back black boys and men who died because of the color of their skin. They are what we offer when we are scared and sad and overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers are what we say when we don’t know what to do and when we want to be seen (even by ourselves) as doing something. They are what we say when we wash our hands of problems and throw the troubles of others to the divine.

Thoughts and prayers. I have thousands of the former. Sad and pleading thoughts. Angry and outraged thoughts. Hopeless and helpless thoughts. Even, occasionally, a hopeful thought, which always surprises me, blooming among the ash and debris of a nation exploded. I have thousands of thoughts. Not one has held back a hurricane, blocked a bullet, raised the dead, protected the innocent, or brought any good out of evil. Thoughts can’t do that. Thoughts are, well, just what our head does when we’re not otherwise occupied. Our thoughts can consume us, and it is easy to mistake thoughts for action.

But prayers. Of these I have none. In the saddest and most desperate moments, I’ve found myself pleading to the universe, perhaps invoking a God whom I no longer believe in, but prayer? Prayers, like thoughts, have yet to hold back a hurricane, block a bullet, raise the dead, protect the innocent, or bring good out of evil. Prayer can soothe us, as it, like thought, can feel like action. But prayer — an act of faith in the divine — is an escape hatch I no longer have.

I left my faith behind over a decade ago. I didn’t lose it. It wasn’t misplaced, nor was it neglected and thus somehow tattered beyond all recognition. It was, after much thought and no small amount of distress, set aside somewhat reluctantly and with a sense of loss that kicks back in times like this.  This was not unlike the fate of my wedding ring, reluctantly yet resolutely removed post-separation, returned to its velvet box of origin, now a casket for the ring and a marriage, and tucked deep in a rarely-used dresser drawer. Not lost. No. Intentionally left behind.

 

Faith. Religious faith is a slippery commodity. It is the currency of religious belief, which is both gifted and cultivated. Faith is considered a gift, given by the one who is then the recipient of the belief (God, by whatever name or names) that comes from the gift. This circular and seemingly self-serving system seems to benefit mostly the divine, but to say the mortal receives no benefit would be dishonest. Faith is a refuge, a sure shelter when the world seems rocky and riotous. To have faith — to believe in what cannot be seen and cannot be empirically known — is said to be a virtue. It is good to have that faith, to take that gift, to believe. It’s good for the belief system overall and, from personal experience, it can be good for the believer. 

It was good for me. First, I had a sort of blind faith, one that moved from a child’s faith that what my parents and church said must be true: that a divine being, which we called God, was somewhere or everywhere, doing something generally beneficial for someone or maybe everyone or perhaps just some people. It was fuzzy, the faith of my childhood, and in many ways, I’m grateful for that. The God of my youth was distant but apparently cared that we thanked Him (and the God of my youth was male) before meals. Jesus did the hands-on stuff — curing lepers, raising the dead, and turning water to wine. God took the credit and quietly cared for us.

During my teen years, Catholic school and a rather conservative (for the 1980s)  Catholic youth group brought some complexity to faith. It was in those years that faith became part of my vocabulary, truly an entity that could be protected, abandoned, lost, squandered, sought, or gifted by the divine. Faith shared some traits with virginity — given to one without request but lost if not careful and virtuous, and, perhaps, returned if one repented for losing it and promised not to do so again. Thus faith can be a word that could be used somewhat threateningly: “Don’t you have faith?!” “You just have to have faith!” And, perhaps most ironically, “You just need to pray for faith.”

So I had faith. And I was careful not to question it, to hold it up to the light. I had faith because I needed God to keep me, to love me, to approve of me. I wasn’t afraid of hell (having not been raised with a heaven). I was afraid of being alone, with only myself to keep, love, and approve of me. Faith was somewhere between talisman and weapon, like a rabbit’s foot with a sharpened claw.

Yet faith served me. It kept my life in order, and it warded off the worst of evil. Faith, after all, allowed me to lean on a god who loved me no matter what and who wouldn’t let humans destroy one another. It kept me in the safety of the Catholicism I’d chosen at the start of my adolescence, a Jesuit Catholicism, steeped in justice, simmered in the Gospels, and garnished with Jesus’ messages about how we should love and care for one another. It was faith that allowed me to see hope where there was little, as the God to whom I pledged my faith was a God of redemption and unconditional love, and God clearly would make all okay.

Well, that was until I thought it about it. It was thoughts about prayer that undid my relationship with faith. It was a slow undoing, a reluctant and gradual process of unwinding the first-whispering and then-shouting doubts that prayer was not going to save the world or even me. Doubts whispered at first, buzzing in the words of priests whose praise only was for those who believed in a Catholic God (which I knew was not a thing). It then roared as 9/11 made my world bigger and darker and scarier. Holding my newborn son in my arms, nursing him during the night, watching the flashes of light from the TV, bombs falling on moms and nursing babies who were dying in Afghanistan after so many people died here, deaths not canceling one another out but simply amplifying suffering and fanning the flames of hate. I spent many nights, my son at my breast, drowning in the tears of sorrow for those I’d never met or even considered. I prayed, but still I drowned, and still moms and babies died.

It was then that I loosened my grip on faith.  Still, it took years for me to fully examine the heart of my religious life: prayer. Mine wasn’t a unique crisis. It was new to me, but it is as old as ideas of a divine who — if s/he chooses — can interfere with human lives. How can a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God listen to some prayers and intervene for good while letting moms and babies die in horrific ways? That was the first question, one that sat stewing for some time, but it was quickly joined with both a logical undoing of a system not designed for logical analysis but rather counts on, ironically, faith.

So I set down faith. I didn’t throw it out. I didn’t lose it. I set it aside, holding it from time to time, occasionally praying, again ironically, for that faith to somehow work again. I changed belief systems, but moving to an Episcopal church brought me only time to work through the grief. I stuck at it for a bit, needing the ritual and rhythm of the service and wanting the option to pray to a God I was increasingly sure wasn’t there, just in case he was. But I could no longer make it work. I could no longer see the divine in a god. I could see love in Jesus and compassion in the Buddha and the power of community in action working for the common good, but I had set down my faith, as I could not see God.

A year or two later, I was doing the same with my wedding ring, reeling at a reality that was only the stuff of books and movies. Marriages take a faith of sorts along with hard work, patience, dedication, honesty, and love beyond measure. The faith in a marriage can similarly be undone by logic and reason, as well as by violence and injustice. I held onto the messy remains of a marriage torn asunder like I’d held onto my fraying and failing faith. It HAD to work, you see. This is how it is to be.

But it didn’t, and so I let go. I did not let go with the quiet grace I that accompanied leaving my faith in God. I was not simply resigned and saddened, or simply empty. I was instead furious, gripping tight and throwing off all in the same breath, deprived of choice and agency. But I let go and put the ring — and my marriage — away.

A decade later, I’ve found love again, but this time I have also found faith in my ability to care for myself and still let someone else care for me. A decade later, my religious faith remains packed away, a sometimes tempting treasure of the past that I still occasionally mourn, as faith and prayer and the comfort of a God who was looking out for me is, at points, appealing in its complex simplicity and ancient promise. 

That setting down of faith leaves me without prayer, and when others offer both, I offer only the thought half of the duo. Thoughts — free and wild and sometimes hot and angry and sad — remain with me. But thoughts of any kind do not touch the violence of our world. They never have. And they never will.  But, by my calculus, prayer doesn’t change the world either, or at least it doesn’t seem to have done so yet. Prayers have been offered for millennia, and to what end? Humans still suffer from disease and from one another. We pray to countless gods, and yet we still remain a predictably violent species how are markedly vulnerable to pain and suffering. I won’t deny that the chief benefit I see in prayer is a respite from hopelessness and helplessness for the one offering the prayer. It is precisely those benefits I miss. But prayer as an antidote to the inanity of humanity? No. It doesn’t work.

So much for thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts are silent and impotent in themselves. Prayers are, by my accounting, not actually feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rebuilding Puerto Rico, or bringing back the life, health, and hope of those who found themselves in an impromptu war zone instead of a concert. Thoughts and prayers may comfort us when nothing else does, and that is indeed good. But what thought and prayers cannot do is save the world from the harms humans wreak upon it.

Those jobs are up to us. It’s up to us to create a society that screams ENOUGH with violence. It’s up to us to push our representatives in government to act in ways that serve people, not big business. It’s up to us to have the hard conversations with those who regard any human as less. It is up to us to work for justice at home and abroad. It’s up to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and demand that we rebuild Puerto Rico, Houston, and Orlando. It is up to us to never let another Trayvon, Tamir, or Philando be killed because of the color of his skin. It is up to us to speak, to act, to act up, to act out, and to live fully what we think and for what we pray. We cannot rely on thoughts and prayers to heal our world.

So I pick up faith. Not faith in the divine, but rather faith in the ability of humans to make change in the world. I have faith in the strength and power of human beings dedicated to justice and love. I have faith because good people do feed the hungry, speak up for the oppressed, care for the sick, and fight for rights for all human beings. This faith, I can keep. This faith, I can share. With this faith, you and I can change the world.

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To Know and To Believe

(Sermon given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington on April 3, 2016.)

DSCN0296Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to [have] knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. (Carl Sagan)

Knowing and belief. Science and religion. As Unitarian Universalists, we hold religion and science far from one another. We say that religion doesn’t belong in science, and, if we’re true to our dedication that everyone has the right to their own search for meaning, we don’t impose our science onto someone else’s religious beliefs. For example, we hold, arms outstretched, our understanding of how humans evolved from earlier primates in one hand, while our beliefs about whether a god cares about our existence in the other.

Just as we hold those domains to be separate, insisting that the realm of science be clear of the realm of religion, we often confuse our ways of knowing in science with our ways of believing religiously. We cup those ways together, mixing them and using them indiscriminately, undoing that separation out of carelessness and simple human nature.

Today, I’ll explore understanding in two realms — science and religion. I’ll tease out belief, which loves to pose as knowledge but isn’t. It may be a way of understanding, but it should never be confused with knowing and knowledge. I’ll explore knowing of a particular kind – the scientific kind of knowing. I’ll also sit with uncertainty and its relationship to science and to religion, as it drives both.

Let’s start with what science is. Science is, according to Dr. Bruce Railsback of the Geology Dept of the University of Georgia,…the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.”

Let’s start in the middle of that definition. Science involves the observation of natural phenomena. It’s using the senses to attend to the details of the universe. The twinkling stars above. The scurrying ants below. The breeze on our face. The evidence of the passage of time and the aging of our bodies. Science involves observation of both the untouched, natural world and of the manipulated world (experimentation), but the starting place is unadulterated observation.

So science is watching the chickadee eat, noticing their preference for one thistle feeder over the other. It’s about observing many chickadees over many days. It’s about noticing that the sun appears in the same direction every morning, but depending on your latitude, not at the same time each morning. It’s about watching person after person succumb to smallpox, as Edward Jenner did in the late 1700s, hearing from others and noticing himself over many years, that milkmaids, who often developed the mild disease of cowpox, rarely suffered the deadly smallpox.

There is a level of knowing that occurs with observation. I know that the chickadees in my yard prefer the feeder in the front yard because the thistle seed vanishes far faster from that feeder with its perches than it does from the mesh feeder in the backyard. I know the sun appears in the same direction every day, at least for my lifetime, because I’ve seen it do so for the well-over forty years of my life. And Jenner knew that, in the population he observed, milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox.

So observation leads to some level of knowing — a conditional knowing, a descriptive kind of knowing limited by what has been seen. Alone, an observation tells us very little, or at least often less than we think it does:

Three people were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” said the first with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” said the second, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” said the third, a scientist, glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

Science, however, doesn’t end with the observation of one side of one sheep or the position of the sun from one spot on the Earth, but observation is at the heart of all science. It is, as Dr. Railsback notes, the basis of understanding, but it is not alone science. Faced with data from observations, we start to ask questions. Why do these chickadees prefer one feeder over the other? Why do we see the sun in the same place each morning? Does the mild disease of cowpox, common to milkmaids, somehow really protect them against the deadly smallpox?

It’s these questions that lead to more thought, more observations, and, perhaps, an eventual hypothesis. A hypothesis is often defined as an educated guess, but that sells short the work that goes into creating a hypothesis. Rather a hypothesis is based on multiple observations paired with previous scientific knowledge. It’s a proposed answer to a question about what’s been observed. We have to be careful when we hypothesize, for it’s tempting to become attached to these so-called educated guesses. When we hypothesize, we aren’t stating knowledge. We’re stating possible connections that need to be tested and very well may not hold up to testing. That’s tricky, because as humans, we want our guesses to be right, as it just feels good to be right.

The chickadees like the feeder in the front yard because it has perches, allowing them a more secure stance when eating. Something about having cowpox makes smallpox a milder disease, so giving someone cowpox might be a way to prevent smallpox deaths.

Hypotheses are small steps. They are testable steps. They lead to experimentation which, per Railsback, “…tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions”. Experimentation yields more observations and more data. And it yields more questions. A hypothesis that proves false is just as valuable to science as the one that is proven true. The feeders’ positions are switched, and the chickadees continue to dine from the front yard feeder, the one with metal mesh and no perches. The hypothesis is unsupported — location of the feeder seems to matter more than the form of the feeder. Jenner innoculates a 9-year-old boy with cowpox from a milkmaid’s pustule, resulting in a mild illness with no rash, and, a few months later, he innoculates the boy with smallpox. The child remains healthy. The hypothesis is supported– infection from cowpox did seem to protect the child from smallpox.. Either way, hypothesis supported or not, the next step is another hypothesis and more experimentation.

Now, not everything is easily testable by experimentation. Some systems are beyond our ability to control conditions, leaving us with finding ever-more sophisticated ways to observe. Our understandings about the universe and its laws and age unfold because we learn to observe differently while developing new ways to observe. We smash particles together and watch the fallout, for example. Our knowledge about how life began and diversified on Earth is also observational, relying on fossil-hunters and increasingly sophisticated methods of determining the age of those fossils.

When does that cycle of observing and often experimenting stop? It doesn’t. After many experiments and accumulation of data from many sources, we start talking about knowing in a scientific way.  We are the best scientists when we keep in mind that we still don’t know much, and that our current knowledge is limited by the accuracy of its mode of discovery, the tools and technology of our time, the integrity of this scientific process, and the creativity and insight of those observing and asking questions.  The scientific method of observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting is not flawed, but we are. We are prone to bias. We prefer not to be wrong. We see correlation and assume it is causation. We see patterns when none exist and miss patterns where they are present. We reach, seeing what’s not there, because we are so desperate to know. We make mistakes.

So, then, if we make mistakes, what is knowing in science? Knowing starts with observation and is furthered by repeated experimentation. It’s driven by data collected by those looking for fact and truth. (Hope and conjecture have no role in science. Anecdotes aren’t science either, for as the adage goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.) Knowing in science can mean understanding a theory, one of the big, broad theories such as those about evolution or gravity or germs. It can also mean understanding, as well as current research allows, the mechanisms behind the disorders and diseases that cause us to suffer and, at some point, to die.

Aside from the big theories and the basic mechanisms of action in biology, chemistry, the Earth science, and physics, knowing in science is tenuous and subject to change. We are perhaps most aware of this in medicine. Here’s an example from routine women’s  health care:

Recommendations for calcium supplementation, self-breast exams, and pap smears have changed drastically in the twenty-two years I’ve been practicing medicine. When I started working as  PA in family practice, we urged women to take 1200 mg of calcium daily to prevent osteoporosis, examine their own breasts monthly to check for suspicious masses, and get a pap smear annually to check for cervical cancer, starting at age eighteen. Observational studies followed by experimentation drove those recommendations, so most health care providers followed them. That is how medicine works. Large studies, preferably verified by other large studies produce reams of data that lead, after much discussion and dissention, to recommendations for practice.

Today, those recommendations have changed. Calcium supplementation is no longer routinely recommended for osteoporosis prevention, as it has a dubious role in preventing fractures while having a clear role in increasing kidney stones. While some women do find their own breast cancers, monthly self-breast exams did not save lives. Annual pap smears started very young led to over diagnosis of benign conditions and a corresponding unnecessary increase of the not-always-benign treatment for those conditions.

Was the science that drove those recommendations wrong? Yes and no. Yes, calcium plays a starring role in bone metabolism. Yes, women who notice a breast lump should see a doctor promptly. Yes, pap smears reduce the rate of death from cervical cancer. But because science is an ongoing process, and because doctors and scientists continue to question and continue to experiment, the book didn’t close on those issues in women’s healthcare. It stayed open, because that’s what science does. It remains open.

And that’s where uncertainty enters the room. No matter how much we know about the natural world, what we don’t know dwarfs that knowledge. The universe is vastly big, and our smallest bits of ourselves are so very, very small. We know so much. And so little. Science embraces uncertainty because without that uncertainty, without that examination of what is known, we would have no need to keep questioning and wondering.

Uncertainty in science is good. It is necessary. It is what brought science to be and drives science on. Without uncertainty, we remain frozen, without impetus to look again, without reason to wonder. We need uncertainty to move forward scientifically. But uncertainty can also drive us away from science, especially when science doesn’t yet have answers to our questions. The earliest people were uncertain when the moon eclipsed the sun, when stars changed position in the sky, when rains and winds brought death and destruction. They were uncertain why people died and how new life came to be. In that uncertainty, they built beliefs and rituals and stories. Before science had a codified process, uncertainty brought us religion, a way of understanding what we did not know and couldn’t explain.

I think we’d agree that the Jewish primary texts, the Torah and rest of the Old Testament, and the Christian primary texts, the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament, don’t explain the true origins of the world or explore the root causes of plagues, floods, or other natural disasters and wonders. Similarly, we don’t take as true the stories of the Hindu gods, with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as actual forces in the natural world. We read these texts as history and literature, and while we may take those metaphors of creator, preserver, and destroyer to be meaningful representations of the process of our own birth, life, and death, we don’t confuse these with the actual forces of our natural world. We know those stories are stories, explanations from a time before the knowing of science.

But what about the god or gods or goddesses behind those pieces of historical literature? What are we saying when we say we believe in a god or goddess or an assortment of them? Belief is a trust, a confidence in something or some idea that is untestable and perhaps not even observable without generous interpretation. Some may believe in a deity who knows their name, who breathed life into them. Some may believe that an unseen deity protects them from harms, known and unknown. Some may believe that deity brings them trials and tribulations as tests of faith and devotion, or simply as ways to make them better people. And some believe that their loving, omniscient deity, giver of life, then calls them away from that life to something better — something unknown, unseen by anyone on Earth, somewhere where pain and suffering vanish and life never ends.

Whatever the narrative of the human life within that belief structure about the divine, it is a narrative designed bring comfort, order, purpose, meaning, and security. We all want those in our uncertain, unpredictable, sometimes chaotic and always finite lives. Belief in a divine force, something beyond ourselves and beyond the ever-evolving scientific knowledge of the world, can bring a sense of certainty to the uncertainty of our lives. Belief in a set of religious precepts ordained by an omnipotent God or beliefs in a single uniting force, connecting us all and giving us some power beyond our mortal limits, can help us manage the uncertainty of being human. Belief in forces outside our natural world can be amazingly soothing and helpful.

That’s where belief belongs. Belief is the language of religion. In that realm, it’s valid and sound, allowing one to hold close and valuable something untestable and ephemeral. While belief may lead a person to make seemingly scientific connections (the cancer vanished, so God exists), it should never — ever — be confused with the knowledge, however mutable, that science provides.

But, as I mention, we are uncertain, and we, as humans, are not so good at accepting that uncertainty. That’s what drives good science inquiry and, eventually, knowledge. It’s also what drives us to belief, the way understanding in religion when we should be in the realm of science.

Belief is a way of understanding the world, but it’s not appropriate to science or applications of science, like medicine. Uncertainty in the scientific  realm — and especially the medical realm — can drive us to claiming knowledge in ways other than scientific ways. When medicine doesn’t provide clear relief from symptoms, we may turn to those anecdotes from a friend or the friend of a friend or some guru on TV. In our uncertainty and often our fear, we may become prone to follow fads and  accept pseudoscience, sure that doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. We cling to answers that go directly against the scientific process proven to be effective for over 400 years — simple answers, such as a specific diet or oil that cures everything. We read lists of symptoms from vertigo to fatigue, impotence to rashes, all linked to a single substance either used in excess or in deficit. Gluten and lyme disease and even vaccines get named villains for all that ails — while vitamin D and coconut oil become the new fountains of youth. (And, yes, gluten can be deadly to some and troublesome for others, and lyme disease is a real entity requiring medical intervention, but neither cause all medical woes, nor does Vitamin D or a fad diet fix all that ails us. And vaccines save lives. The World Health Organization attributes the measles vaccine alone to saving 17.1 million lives just since the year 2000 while not contributing at all to autism rates, according to numerous studies.) In the face of no clear answer or no easy answer, it’s easy to cling to what is not knowledge — It’s easy to cling to belief.

But we shouldn’t.  Belief isn’t the language of science. It’s not how we know what is under our feet, over our heads, or in our own bodies. And if we’re serious about holding science and religion as far apart as we can, if we’re committed to understanding that knowing in science can never be preempted by the beliefs associated with religion, we cannot mingle these ways of understanding the world.  

We hold science and religion apart because they are different domains in our post-enlightenment age. Science is built on observation, questioning, and experimentation. It requires constant uncertainty and scrutiny, testing and retesting, looking forward and backwards at the same time. It is a continuous process of uncovering knowledge that leads to more questions. It is about objective truths and the building of knowledge as understanding.

Religion also fills the void of uncertainty, but it fills it with belief. Untestable and often unobservable, beliefs may change across a lifespan due to experiences or new ideas or just need. Beliefs carry no burden of proof and offer comfort that, for some, lasts a lifetime unchanged. Belief is about that which touches our metaphorical hearts. Belief is personal, subjective, and entirely non-scientific. It can be what brings us comfort when nothing material, science or otherwise, can, but it should never be confused with the knowing that comes from science.

So here they sit, science on the one hand and religion on the other, arms stretched wide. 

And here’s our ways of understanding, knowledge paired with science, belief sitting with religion.

May uncertainty be with you as you hold those realms apart.

It’s Complicated

This is the first essay I’ve written in almost a year, and I seem to have a backlog of words. Bear with me.

IMG_2113I teach a facinating group of young teens and preteens how to write using resources other than their own opinions and previous knowledge.  Together, we wrangle with essays written by the pros and debate the credibility and reliability of sources online and in print, and they write essays using those sources to support their well-considered thesis statements. However, teens and preteens glue themselves to an opinion tighter than Thomas the Tank Engine stickers adhere to oak book shelves, and this tenacity to ideas interferes with anything close to critical thinking or clear-headed writing. They seek for what confirms their bias and often discard what seems to be against it.

So I’ve challenged this group of young, intelligent idealists with blinders with an assignment I’ve called “It’s Complicated.” Rather than starting with their stance on an issue, they start with the thesis that a particular idea is just that — complicated. Technology’s effect on learning. The ethics of driverless cars. Animal testing. The voting age. Nuclear power. Their task is to present the complexity with an open mind while grappling with ideas on both sides. After that, and only after that, they can discuss — briefly — their opinion.

Why bother? Because our world is complicated. Painfully, heart-searingly complicated. That seems to hardly be a contentious statement to anyone reading or listening to reliable news sources. Take Syria, for example. Tease out who started what and when, and whose actions affect whom, and just who is called good or bad or somewhere in between. Reach back five years. Then reach back further – a decade, five decades, a century, five centuries. When did all this really start?

Then take a single possible outcome — one way this situation could turn out (good luck with that step) —  and look forward five years. Don’t just look at ISIS and Syria when you slide your eyes along that mental timeline. Look at Turkey. And Russia. And just about all of the Middle East. Don’t leave out Nigeria. Oh, and peek in on Europe. Plus the US. What do you see?

Now look at your social media feed. Perhaps you have a rather homogenous feed that serves as an echo chamber of your thoughts. If your feed is like mine (and mine is embarrassingly politically one-sided), you’ll rarely see complexity as an issue. Last week, you might have seen maps of the states in different colors, red usually pointing its finger at states declaring they’ll take no Syrian refugees because the timeline they mentally drew leads to political risks for them and perhaps some honest fear of other as well. You might have seen debate about attention to Paris when the Beirut massacre just days earlier failed to fill the New York Times front page — and most social media feeds — for a week and counting. And the  pictures you saw were likely those of Syrian refugees, women and children in most, afraid for their lives and willing to risk possible death in escape rather than what likely seems certain death in staying.

Your social media feed may be more balanced than mine, still filled with maps of red states, but this time with lines of applause about protecting America by refusing those same Syrian refugees. Debate may have centered around how to protect the U.S. and which candidate takes the strongest stance on immigration. Those feeds, too had pictures of refugees, but more perhaps of armed young men, willing to lie and coerce just to take the lives of Americans, with captions reading, “It only takes one.”

What you likely won’t see is anyone saying this: “It’s complicated.” And that’s too bad for all of us.

It is complicated. It’s complicated because it involves people — with all their fears and passions and desires and needs — and people are messy. We have irrational thoughts, faulty memories, and little tolerance for what we can’t quickly categorize and judge. We struggle to sit with the tangled knot of ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia, France, and so forth, teasing out each thread while realizing that each tug pulls the knot tighter while fraying our understanding. We sit with the moment only — in a theater in France or in a plane out of Egypt — and then cling to the emotion it brings. We miss, in our fear, in our hate, and even in our love, the complexity when we are quick to label and judge.

Don’t get me wrong. ISIS is a horrific entity, and killing civilians to prove your might and morals is abhorrent no matter what your aim. And, at least in my understanding of compassion, caring for the orphan and stranger, is right. In my Catholic years, that was what Jesus said to do. As a Unitarian Universalist, it’s treating humans with dignity. But the work of dismantling terror organizations so new ones don’t pop up in their absence is complicated. And bringing in those running from terror into a population riddled with those who fear them because of race, religion, and the obscene acts of their oppressors is also complicated. We’re foolish to think it isn’t.

Life in any sort of community — from the smallest community of family, to life in a country full of refugees and immigrants, to a planet with over seven billion other beings — is complicated. Even when we feel completely in step with the most familiar of “other,” we can quickly run into conflicts that come from two different minds thinking different thoughts, fears and hopes and desires and passions discordantly clanging to the floor. Sometimes we manage these with grace and perspective, but often we clash.

Life with other human beings is complicated. When we embrace that, we’re partway through to a solution. Simply saying together, “It’s complicated,” we start down the road to cooperation and progress, even if only in our agreement that complicated problems don’t have simple solutions. When we look at ISIS and Syria and all that and say, “That’s a mess. It scares me,” or look our estranged loved one and say, “This is complicated, and I’m afraid,” we’ve made a crucial step to not only solving the complicated problem but healing our deepest divides.

Why does admitting and appreciating complexity matter? First, it acknowledges that few problems are solved by a single-step algorithm, like the “You cut, I choose” rule for two siblings sharing one donut. Our relationship problems are almost always multifactoral, and if relationships between two people bonded by love and blood can stumble over as seemingly little stuff as dirty socks or curfews, then it stands to reason that all the big stuff is exponentially more prone to problems taking more than rock, paper, scissors to solve. It reminds us that yelling “yes!” and “no!” across the internet or the Thanksgiving dinner table is worse than futile — it divides us when we most need to think together.

Admitting complexity also means acceding that the other side has valid points. Ouch. Aren’t they just generally wrong? Many problems are not simple and thus not simply solved — multiple perspectives can help. Many problems are like that knot, fraying yet bound, and teasing out a thread on one side may tighten the opposite edge of the knot. When we’re willing to see that tugging our sacred thread may make part of the knot more unwieldy, we’re starting to appreciate that complex problems aren’t solved with a single tug without exacerbating other problems. We may then see that, as bound to peace as we may be, there may be times when military action costs the world fewer lives than waiting for change. We may also see that refusing refugees based on the human-created boundaries circumscribing their birthplace makes as much sense as assuming everyone living in the hometown of a mass shooter should be refused entry to neighboring towns, because they might, you see, be future killers themselves.

The minute we scream “It’s simple, stupid!” we’re missing something and losing more. To be certain, listening to the the opposition should not mean letting go of our own values — not at all. It should mean that we hold them up to the light carefully to examine them, making sure that we’ve not battered those values of peace, compassion, love, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Are we loving everyone, even those voting to keep those assault rifles? Does our compassion extend to those who look different than us and those who fear those who look different from us? Does our freedom to believe or not to believe trample the freedom of those who pick the opposite? Without care and frequent inspection, our values become parodies of themselves, active only when we feel that another is worthy of them.

So let it be complicated. Read broadly, listen carefully, ask questions designed to understand opposing positions, and quiet defenses enough to listen to those positions. Drop the rhetoric and see where your words and actions betray your tightly-held values. Talk about what you truly value and not what others don’t. And keep seeking to understand.

It’s a complicated world, both within the walls of your own home and underneath our shared atmosphere. Start with the small stuff, just as my students are — driverless cars, technology and learning, the voting age. When you’re ready, move up to the harder stuff — religious freedom boundaries, the U.S. role in the Middle East, and how to parent your teens. It’s all complicated, and that’s okay.

Idealism, Existential Depression, and Unitarian Universalism

IMG_1582(Somewhat edited text from my sermon given on Sunday, April 26, 2015, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. This piece was inspired by a book by James T Webb, Ph.D.: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope)

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath


It starts something like this:

I read something in the New York Times or hear something on NPR about some aspect of health care. Perhaps it’s about affordability: sky-high deductibles on top of high premiums that keep people from seeking health care despite having insurance. Or maybe it’s about lack of access to dental care for low-income adults. Teeth are, of course, part of our bodies, and they are a part that can be damaged or diseased. Dental care isn’t a luxury, and teeth aren’t expendable, like an appendix (whose removal is generally covered, after that sky-high deductible). Yet for the poor, affordable and timely dental care can be near impossible to find.

Or maybe I go to work, to my job as a PA in a family practice that serves mostly the poor, addicted, and disenfranchised. Maybe I’ve spent too much time that day (time that causes other patients to wait for ages) searching for the doctor or medical center that will take a patient’s particular flavor of Medicaid, frustrated because this patient has something rare, something only a few surgeons in a large metropolitan area can manage well, and the best of those aren’t in her network. Or perhaps I’ve cared for a woman who lost her housing and is living out of her car. She has Medicaid as well, thus she has healthcare coverage (well, aside from dental care), but she can’t afford a place to live and has exhausted the meager resources of her friends. Her skin infection on her foot is getting worse, and her blood sugars are rising, which isn’t helping her infection. And why isn’t she taking her insulin? Because without a house, she has no refrigerator in which to keep it, and it’s terribly hot outside. Besides, if she takes it, she has to eat, and access to food isn’t predictable.

Whether via the news or the through the lives of my patients or the experience of a friend, I find myself in some mix of anger and despair over a myriad of healthcare wrongs in this nation and across the world. My husband is a fine conversational partner when I’m in this state, and he’s willing to nod and shake his head in turn, listening to the verse of the day: “Why don’t teeth matter? Why is it so hard to find quality mental health care for people of need? Couldn’t we take better care of patients if we had more time? What if the Affordable Care Act, despite all its limitations, disappears in the next election cycle?”

He’s patient through the chorus as well: “Why is it like this? Why don’t we care for people — really care?! Why do we focus on war and wealth and not on people?!”

It’s hard being an idealist.

I can’t recall a time in at least the past twenty years when I didn’t see the world in two painfully conflicting ways:  One way is filled with sunshine, hope, and clarity that what should be will be. That what is right and good and best will happen. It’s optimistic, in a way, brimming with faith in humanity and hope for the future. Optimistic, but not giddily or mindlessly so. Maybe it’s more high-minded, but not, at least mostly, haughty. It is a view finds solace and hope in morals and values and virtues, the sorts that seem universal. Justice. Equity. Compassion, Respect for human dignity. Equality. Fairness. Kindness. Goodness. Love. Patience. When I wake with this view of the world, I’m certain that I’ll parent a bit better than the day before, sure I’ll be a more loyal friend, a more compassionate partner, and at least a bit more dedicated to getting some exercise. It’s the same part that trusts that after this election, we’ll have healthcare for all, equal pay for women, solutions for poverty, and justice for the immigrant. I even believe that someday, dental care will count as medical care. It’s the side that can find the way out of the bed even on the darkest morning because the sun will always rise. It is my idealist who wakes most mornings.

Idealism, the tendency to see the world in terms of how things should be, is often touted as a virtue. It can be that. For the individual, idealism can provide energy, fuel hope, and inspire action. It’s exhilarating to think about what could be if only. It’s hopeful to consider the vast amount of human potential this world holds. It’s inspiring to consider what one set of hands, one pair of  ears, one mouth, and one pair of feet can to when combined with a compassionate heart, and an outward-thinking mind.

Idealists are catalysts for change: they see the mismatch between what is and what should be. Some idealists act on the distress borne out of seeing that mismatch: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, march for the oppressed, fight for the downtrodden, and otherwise work to see the world move closer to their ideals, all for the betterment of humanity and the planet. Idealism in community can do even more. When people with similar “shoulds” and “could bes” work together, powerful change can happen. Idealists working together  is what brought emancipation to the slaves, the vote to women, civil rights to Blacks, and, slowly and steadily, marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Sounds just peachy, doesn’t it? Some days, and often at the end of other days, I see the world differently. I see what is and despair about whatever could be. In real life, the kind with limitations and failures and human beings and differing ideas of what should and could be, idealism is both a source of motivation as well as a source of stress and sadness. It’s just hard to watch the world and those humans, including oneself, not BE what one thinks SHOULD be. The world and its inhabitants just don’t always do what’s better for the world and those inhabitants. Add a fairly sharp mind to an idealist mindset (and many a bright person is idealistic), and it’s not hard to quickly think oneself from hopeful to existential funk. After all, the poor aren’t fed, not even in our own neighborhoods and schools. Dental care is an extra. Racism lives, and young black men continue to be on the losing end of justice, economic equity, and, too often, hope. Those with the privilege to protect use their power to harm those who can take no more harm. Gays and lesbians have the right to marry given and taken away in the same day. And I still lose my temper at my kids. Let the funk begin.

According to James T. Webb, PhD, expert in gifted education, and author of Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, “Bright, intense, caring, idealistic people are more likely to be disillusioned than many others, and along with disillusionment can come depression.” Does that list of characteristics remind of any people you know, perhaps, even, any people around you at this very moment?  Bright? Intense? Caring? Idealistic? And at least a bit discouraged or anxious about the state of the world? Does that statement resonate with you? You — and I — are not alone.

While clinical depression doesn’t strike every idealist, few idealists I’ve known escape disappointment punctuated by occasional outright despair when viewing the human condition. We learn our idealism from many places, but the first source is often our families of origin. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with my father that begin with concerns about something political and social, equitable health care, and ends up with both of us with our brows crinkled, shaking our heads, feeling more than a bit disappointed in our society if not our world. We’re not depressed, but we are discouraged. But what lies behind that discouragement? It’s not just the unmet ideals of our nation or the ones we personally fail to meet. It’s something more.

As humans, we look for meaning in our lives. When I teach biology class, I tell my students that the purpose of all living things is to procreate. It’s true, biologically speaking. The job of life is to preserve the species via reproduction.  As humans, of course, we find our meaning in more than just replacing ourselves. What we find meaning in varies from person to person and from one time in our lives to another time. Meaning can be found in our relationships with self, family, friends, and even the stranger. Meaning may be rooted in personal accomplishments, appearance, or possessions. It may be found in God, goddess, the pantheon of deities, or the assuredness that there is no divine being on whom to call. Some find meaning in money and jobs. And those same may find it in acts of charity performed with that money or within that job. We may find meaning in the intangible and immeasurable: love, honesty, compassion, hard work, pain, suffering, birth, and even death. We may find it in the silence between the measurables and immeasurables, the places where only the breath resides.

Wherever we find it, however we name it at this moment, what gives us meaning is inextricably linked to the existential questions: Who am I? What is important? What is my purpose? Why do I exist? What is there beyond the self? These questions are at the very heart of our search for meaning, and as we look for meaning in our lives, we are actually grappling with these big existential concerns — we are wrestling with the meaning of life overall.

These concerns aren’t products of a modern society, although modern conveniences and generally ample thinking time give us more opportunities to ponder over them. The ancients wondered about the meaning of life and other existential concerns, and our world’s religions exist out of the desire human beings have to explain not only the natural wonders that delight and terrify us but also to explain the human condition in all its glory and suffering.  But gaining scientific understanding of plagues, floods, and the Northern Lights does little to assuage our need to understand our place in the world under the firmament.

The external signs of our grappling for meaning are our shifting focus, our shuffling priorities, our ever-changing ways of being in the world. If I’m convinced (or at least hoping) that status or admiration by others is important to life, I’m likely to find meaning in my job, my income, my home, my possessions, and what is said about me at the water cooler or in the papers. If I’m wed to meaning in human relationships, I’m likely to seek to deepen my bonds to those around me. Our sense of meaning in the world points us towards ideals while driving our behaviors.

In the midst of these ideals, grappling, and even depression, there is hope. There is hope that doesn’t require abandoning ideals, although it does require understanding that many ideals are subjective. There is hope that does not depend on dogmatic beliefs in unseen forces. Hope that accepts that life is messy even when it’s working fairly well. Hope that isn’t escapism via work, media, social networks, material possessions, travel to far-away lands, or food and other chemical substances.  Hope. Not withdrawal into ourselves or collapse into the abyss of detachment or even anger.

Hope. The real McCoy. It is the antidote to this existential funk that so many idealists experience. After all, we can no more shake off our idealism than shed a decade from our lives. And, despite the pain it can cause, the pain of watching ideals go unmet, of seeing a world that seems to continually fight becoming better, I doubt many of us would give up our idealism even if we could. Idealism is, for many of us, what brought us to Unitarian Universalism. We were not content with an “easy God,” a guy in the sky with all the answers, pulling the strings, or, if we waited and listened, telling us which strings to pull. Or, perhaps, we’ve never had an easy God to ask, to blame, to beg, to cajole. Perhaps we’ve just come here because our ponderings of ideals and existential issues were rattling around in our heads, seeking the company of other idealists feeling thwarted by life. Or perhaps we’ve found this place for our children, desiring that their existential questions would find patient ears in this community of thinkers, lovers, and doers. Many of us came to this religion, Unitarian Universalism, with hope, the antidote to existential angst.

Unitarian Universalism offers, among other things, hope. It also encourages idealism and actively ponders the big questions. It encourages knowing ourselves. Our fourth principle (one of seven suggested as common thinking points by the UUA — not creed or dogma but rather a place to start) points us to this responsibility: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

This is first a statement encouraging acceptance of ourselves as human beings — it is part of our natural, human self to wonder and search and to grapple with the big questions. Naming this part of ourselves, whether we consider our idealism and existential wonderings friend or foe, is exceptionally hard, as the mirror it requires to examine one’s self and one’s beliefs throws back images that we may interpret negatively. We do too little. We surf the net too much. We listen with too little attention. We act on our ideals too seldom and on our momentary drives too much. We worry about the small stuff too much. The list goes on. We fall short, and it hurts.

But to manage the recurring disillusionment all idealists face, it’s essential to start with the basic truth that you are who you are — an idealistic, flawed, and sometimes disappointed person who wants a better world. Embrace it. Your idealism is part of you. Embrace also that desire to search for meaning. That’s part of being human, as is the stumbling and bumbling we find ourselves doing as we sort through meaning and ideals. View this existential work as necessary human tasks taken on by fallible human beings in a messy world, and it’s not quite as daunting.

So what now? Now we turn to principle three: We affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. We don’t need to search for meaning and manage our ideals by ourselves. We’re here to help each other through both the pain of ideals unrealized and the search for meaning in our lives. We are also here to accept ourselves and each other as imperfect and unfinished beings, and, most importantly, not lesser people for it.

So we’ve accepted our idealism and that of our fellow travelers. What’s next? The rest of our Unitarian Universalists principles guide us there as well. They mention supporting democracy, working for justice, valuing our fellow travelers, caring for our planet and all the life it supports, treating all humans with compassion and dignity. These concepts (ideals in themselves, really) provide a route out of some of our pain, as they affirm the ideals we hold so true while nudging us to not just agree with them but to actively promote them in our world. The words that begin all are these: We affirm and promote. Affirming is the armchair, or perhaps pew, response. Promoting requires action, even if that action is speaking your mind to spread the word or signing a letter to your congressperson. We’re to do to the work that helps these ideals become actualized in the world. This work, even if it is small, helps us feel effectual in our world, and, as we work to serve others, we tend to set aside some of the noise in our head.

Idealism and its often accompanying existential angst and questioning can be abated by techniques that extend beyond Unitarian Universalism, of course.  Relationships can quiet the questioning voices, allowing us to find meaning in those human contact points as we give and receive. Just talking about the despair can help, as knowing one isn’t alone can often be an antidote to pain (recall sharing our sorrows?). But we needn’t just cry together. Laughter helps, too. Laughing at ourselves, at the absurdity of the world, laughing at the absurdity life often presents to us. Laughing requires stepping out of our heads enough to see that situations pass.

And all things pass, from obstinate congresses to “religious freedom” acts. Even wars and epidemics eventually end. If there is anything a look through history can tell us, it is that nations and our world changes. It’s not always for the better, but it’s not also always for the worse. Taking the long view can help the idealist. Not only can that look let us know how that problems — even the most dire ones — have been solved in peaceful ways before but that it is often idealists with persistence who make that happen. As I look out over this room, guess who I see? Idealists with persistence.

So go ahead. Hold onto your ideals.  Dream of a day when affordable health care (including dental care) for all is reality; a day when marriage is between two consenting adults who love each other, regardless of gender; a day when the color of your skin doesn’t affect the level o dignity and justice you receive; a day when caring for our planet is a top national agenda; or even a day when there isn’t a war to send our children to fight. Continue to grapple with the big questions, as it is only by questioning meaning that we shape our ideals and relate our existence to those ideals.  And as you go, hold onto hope, and help others hold onto hope as well.

Anne Frank:

It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because some of them seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

– July 15, 1944

OnFaith: Losing God and Discovering Prayer

While I’ve not been blogging much lately, I have been writing. Visit me at OnFaith where I consider prayer in the life of an agnostic with a Christian past. While you’re there, poke around a bit. Regardless of your belief system, there is plenty to read and consider.

 

Why Church?

IMG_1277Why church?

I’ve asked myself that for much of the last year. Personally and professionally, change abounds. I’ve expanded my work from home and married the man I love. It’s been a good but busy time, with plenty for my hands and heart to do. For the past six months, I’ve found myself often at home with family, attention focused tightly at a time where that seems the most appropriate action.

Church has changed, too. The UU community I’ve called home for the past seven years has also gone through wrenching changes, with a loss of our minister last summer and a moderate loss of congregation in the process. Initially, part of church leadership, I sat through meetings and contributed to email discussions, watching conflict and division grow and wondering just what was right. Gradually, I pulled back, first leaving my committee chair position and then attending services only sporadically. During winter and spring, I dropped my son for his OWL classes (Our Whole Lives — a human sexuality series offered in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches) and spent services in the church gathering area, where I could tune in and out as desired. This summer, I’ve attended rarely, excusing my absences to travel and family consolidation time.

I’ve started to more deeply consider the question underneath my avoidance. Why church? Why should I get up each Sunday morning, the one day no one needs to otherwise dress and leave the house, and go to church? Why not stay home with my coffee, New York Times, NPR, and pajama-clad loved ones? Why drive twenty minutes to sit for sixty, sip coffee for fifteen, and drive another twenty home? Why do I go?

Seven years back, I had reasons, the first being a hole I couldn’t fill at home.  A life-long member of some Christian denomination or another, I was, seven years back, rather new to saying aloud that I didn’t see any evidence of a god. A reluctant agnostic, mostly closeted because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safety of a personal god, I was feeling loss. Holidays deepened the sense of loss, with Lent and Advent leaving me unmoored. Finding a congregation that was fine with my increasingly faithless status and offered a touch of ceremony to the big liturgical holidays relieved a bit of the chasm that came with jumping theistic ship. At least I was somewhere doing something vaguely familiar.

I came to that UU congregation with several searching friends. In my socially slow-moving, introverted style, I gradually found new friends and acquaintances.  I’d spent the previous decade and a half moving from parish to parish, never feeling settled. At one, I’d come to know a few families well enough to make coffee hour more than a dash for a donut for each kid, but I never found friends. I certainly didn’t experience the supportive relationships my parents had known and continue to know in their places of worship. At this church, I’ve had true friends, the sort where coffee hour can’t contain the conversations. The sort  that spread to the other six days of the week.

And the sort of friends that can sop up some of the sorrow of a slowly imploding marriage and soften a bit of the disaster of divorce. New friends and old held me when I cried. Sunday mornings because a refuge, a time and place I could let down and feel, for just a bit, cocooned from a reality I couldn’t believe was mine. I don’t believe in fate or a god that directs our lives, but I do believe in the power of two or more people gathered in love and in the balm of friendship. I imagine I’d have found a way through those terrible years without that place and those people, but I’m not sure I’d have made it through with much of my sense of self and dignity intact.

Of course there were the kids. Boys, young boys then, not the type to share their grief and confusion over bagels and fair trade coffee but old enough to feel a sense of community. I considered Sunday morning church and religious education to be a social as well as learning opportunity for my introverted boys. Over the years, I came to deeply appreciate the UU approach to children’s religious education. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and my children blossomed in that environment. Questioning was welcomed, the quiet, thoughtful sort as well as the more outspoken and even challenging type. My boys have done well there, learning lessons about respect, dignity, worth, and love, lessons that came through the members who taught them regardless of what the curriculum of the day was. As they’ve matured, they’ve taken on responsibilities that serve the congregation, learning that belonging to community means participating in the work of the community.

That’s good stuff. But, still, I’m asking the question.

Why church now?

I’ve settled comfortably and confidently into my agnostic, humanist view of the world. Holidays no longer echo emptily. We’ve largely left Easter behind, and Christmas has become a time for family. I don’t wake up the first Sunday of Advent longing for “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I often find Fat Tuesday takes me by surprise and leaves with no pierogi or other indulgence, let alone a vice to give up. I don’t go to church to fill that hole. It’s filled itself with time.

My life’s settled down (for now) and with that calm, my need for sanctuary seems less urgent. I’ve found more peace within myself, although that’s still a peace that takes work, as I’m prone to angst and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve found more of that peace at home, in no small part because I’m sharing that home with a supportive and loving partner. I have friends, some from church, some from other communities, friends I mostly keep up with outside of the confines of Sunday mornings. And my boys? As the church has aged and the number of families with children has dropped, even with jobs they enjoy and adults who care for them, church isn’t offering them the companionship it once did.

Why church?

I’ve let that question flit in and out of my mind for a year. I’ve pondered it more seriously for the last several months. And for nearly a week, I’ve written and rewritten this piece, hoping to sort through that question a bit more. A sermon a week back, given by a long-time member who’s seen the place through many ministers and countless changes, provided me with a longer view. After a lifetime of mostly Catholic church experience, I’m new to the leadership and political engagement that many other churches require. I’d never watched a congregation grumble and feud. I’d never seen a member cry because of changes in ministry. I’d never sat at the meeting table, seeing how painful and divisive disagreement can be. Frankly, I’ve wanted to flee, missing my ignorance about the hard work it takes to build a church. I’ve wanted to return to the outside, where lack of engagement in process allowed me to keep my rose-colored glasses on or simply leave when things didn’t feel good anymore.

But this longer view makes me think yet again about my question: Why church?

  • Church, because it is a place where others who value religious freedom gather.
  • Church, because values of inclusion, equality, and justice always need a voice.
  • Church, because supportive community is built over time, not just used when in need.
  • Church, because working through pain, anger, and disappointment in community deepens understanding.
  • Church, because children thrive in an environment of thinking, caring adults who see them as competent and valuable.
  • Church, because stumbling and falling aren’t ends if we help each other off, address our hurts, and work together to heal.
  • Church, because it reminds us that community is larger than any one person, idea, or belief.

So I’m finding my way back to church. I can’t say my energy or enthusiasm is high, but seeing the place from a longer view nudges me to have more patience with the time we’re in. So I’ll show up on most Sunday mornings. I’ll ease into participation beyond that, parking my cloak of disappointment and reluctance on the hangers in the hall. I’ll have the hard conversations, listening to others and mulling over ideas. I’ll also look to the past, learning about what it takes to make a community last over a century and a half and perhaps helping to build that community’s future.

Out of the Ruts

IMG_0906Michigan weather and a county with little remaining plowing budget have found me driving in ruts. My street, a narrow slip that, with a car parked at the edge, allows only single-file traffic, is covered with several inches of ice. Two tire-sized ruts provide the only path, and transferring a vehicle from those ruts to a driveway or the other way ’round takes intention and precision if one doesn’t want to skate into another car or simply spin one’s wheels. Those ruts hold the car tight, however, albeit with a fair amount of jostling within them. There’s safety in the ruts, even with the daily morning glaze of ice. The nausea-inducing ride in them is far from pleasant, but while in these ruts, you’re not apt to end up sideswiping a car or ending up in a snow bank.

Driving in these physical ruts led me to think about the metaphorical type, the kind that we say we want out of yet not badly enough to risk the leap; the one that may leave us skidding into the unknown or simply spinning our wheels in frustration. There can be an odd comfort in even our most painful ruts, perhaps because we know the jostling they bring, which can sometimes seem more comforting than whatever road might lay beyond those well-worn grooves.

Six years ago tonight, my rather messy disaster of a marriage turned far more chaotic. Years of worsening arguments and other insanity came to a head, and by the end of March 2, 2008, I lived alone with two children. I’d like to say that I never looked back after that day. The episodes that led to the shrinking of our household should likely never open one’s mind to reconciliation, and I’m still uncertain why, that for almost another year, I fought for that chance to return to healthy married life. It was, as they say, likely desired for the children, although children are always better off away from violence and deception. It took me almost a year for me to realize that the loss on March 2nd was best accepted and better for all.

Every February since, starting somewhere in the middle of the month, I feel the downward pull. It’s a tug towards some wintery mix of sadness and anger, tinged with a bit of guilt and touched with disbelief that the whole nightmare — years of it — was mine. I don’t blink at our anniversary and can’t even recall the date of our divorce, but that Sunday night in March, along with the weeks preceding it, are still hard to bear. While my grief takes different forms different years, at some point, I find myself in the ruts of revisiting that past — the day itself, then the weeks around it, then the years that came before. It’s a nausea-inducing ride of pain and sadness, yet I fall into those grooves each winter.

Last year, happily enjoying the first year of love with the peaceful, honest, and faithful man whom I’ll soon call my husband, I almost missed it. Mid-February found me thinking about the date, but little emotion came. For the first time, I felt some detachment, some ability to not let those memories play over and over, with all the emotions returning during the reruns. The actual date caught me off guard. I’d actually forgotten, until, at some point near the end of the day, I remembered. Into the ruts I fell.  I cried with company, and the sorrow left more quickly. I started to think those ruts had passed for good or at least that their hold on me had loosened.

This year, the heaviness started over a week before the date. I felt the familiar grooves after landing with a thud, and drove along their familiar path. It’s been a long season, and, like many of us who are suffering cabin fever in what is truly the worst winter many of us have ever seen, I’ve had some dip of mood. Perhaps my upcoming nuptials contributed to my mind’s unexpected plunge into the darkness of six years earlier. While I’ve largely concluded I’m capable of being part of a healthy marriage, of loving someone deeply without losing myself (a self only really found in the past dozen years), of being loved deeply and without reservation, I’m prone to worry that at points borders on panic.

I don’t question whether I had a role in my marriage’s slide into disaster. I know myself when I’m anxious — grasping, afraid, demanding of answers to all that confuses and scares me, angry, wordy — and those last years found me anxious beyond what I’d known previously. I also know what most of us know about making relationships better: I could have listened more and talked less. I could have sat with my anxieties before throwing them at another. I could have let go just when I most want to grasp tightly. In a million ways, I  know I could have loved better. Couldn’t we all?  I don’t, however, take all the blame for the nightmare that was the years before that particular March 2nd, nor any for what happened that night. I did many things over many years that didn’t help, but ultimately, we are responsible only for what we choose to do with our hands and hearts. We are sovereign that way.

Somewhere in the past few days, the dread and deafening doubts tiptoed away enough to let me get through some days without crying. The relief, similar to when the ice finally starts to melt, was barely perceptible until I looked back and saw I hadn’t cried that particular day. I scheduled a massage for Saturday, washing myself in tender and healing touch. I mentioned my blues to my massage therapist, telling her the date that had been bothering me. Her response made little impact at the time: Do something special that day, something that rewrites that day in my memory. Fat chance, I silently figured. What could happen that could push away that darkness of that single and dreadful day? How could I escape those ruts?

The answer came hours later, after the mail had failed (again!) to bring my copy of UUWorld, the quarterly print and online publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. By no effort of my own, I had a piece in both editions, a piece I’d written last fall — Questions of Comfort, a musing about the need for meaning in tragedy. An editor at UU World contacted me, a writer who rarely submits anything to anyone anywhere since that keeps the rejection monster from visiting too often. He asked if they could use the piece, and I, eager to be in print, elatedly agreed. While I’d seen the piece online, my copy had yet to arrive. Over the previous days, friends send messages saying theirs had arrived, one kindly sending a picture of the first page, providing the proof I needed that this was real. But I wanted my own.

Stalked mail carriers rarely deliver, however, and Saturday’s delivery was notably without my copy of the magazine. As I headed to bed after a marvelous day with my intended, it came to me that perhaps I’d found a way out of the ruts March 2nd had held for me these past six years. March 2nd fell on Sunday again this year, and friends, knowing I’d not yet held the magazine that contained proof that I was indeed a published writer, promised to bring that proof to church. Sunday, I’d see my words published in a small yet not invisible magazine that often contains pieces on the hardest parts of life as well as the seemingly small wonders it brings every day.

And so I find myself on a new road, one where March 2nd isn’t a day of recalling pain and reliving disaster and returning to thoughts of failure. March 2nd can be the day I first saw my work in print in a made-of-paper, read-by-people-who-aren’t-obligated-to-do-so magazine. It’s small, this success, but it’s a start down a road I’ve yearned to travel: The road of the published writer.

I don’t know what will happen come the end of February 2015. Habits are hard to break, and some memories are more challenging to manage than others. It’s not in the remembering that the ruts wreak their havoc, however. It’s in the emotions and thought patterns that we dig deeply, either by intention or accident, and it’s what we miss by assuming that once we fall in that we can’t find our way out. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and learning from our most painful memories, but when they steal so much of our present, they need some adjusting. They are ruts to ride over and out of, in search of more open road. Who knows where that might lead?

The Darkest Day

IMG_0144Today is the winter solstice. This means that the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest period of daylight today (nine hours, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds where I live), with the sun reaching its lowest altitude of the year. Starting tomorrow, our days become longer, with what often seems like imperceptible increases in our daily allotment of natural light. We gain three seconds of daylight tomorrow. I’ll take it.

Winter is the rebound season, cold in these northern climes but offering more light with every earlier sunrise and later sunset. Therefore, the start of winter should bring hope. Honestly, I find that hope hard to find. I struggle with the holiday season, finding the period from Halloween through New Year’s Day to be filled with reminders of the rifts in my family of origin and family of choice. Divorce times two resonates loudest during these last months of fall and first days of winter, as I juggle those families, anticipating their absences to the point of missing the time I have in their presence if I don’t watch myself.  Healing continues, but I’ve still not adjusted to having my children away for part of each holiday.

Holidays are hard on my younger son, whose autistic way of being in the world makes breaks in routine akin to tossing him overboard in a leaky dinghy. Just when I’m wrung out from a semester of teaching my own and the children of others, when I’m ready to curl up with a good book and a beverage appropriate to the time of day, he’s losing his moorings. Between the surprises, gatherings, and laxity of the holiday season, he’s forever struggling to find the safety of a schedule. I’d like to say I do my best to make that schedule, but I can’t find my own rhythm during this time, and, frankly, I enjoy the directionless days this time of year offers. I provide some support, of course, charting individual days as they come, discussing what social events he feels he can manage while seeking a bit of form to our general formlessness. I could be more helpful, but the darkness of these days sucks me under.

The hope of the solstice takes some seeking out. This time of year, from now until the warmth of the sun brings us to spring, are hard for me. It’s easy to pull into an existential darkness that comes more swiftly the older I grow. It’s somewhere between an anxiety and depression, helped by exercise, light therapy, and just the right balance of social contact and solitude. (Some days it’s hard to know which I crave more, such is the indecisiveness that lurks with my winter darkness.)

It’s heavy, the blanket of winter. While my residual sadness about family divisions fuels the intermittent funk of late October through Christmas, the pull toward introspection draws stronger during these long nights of deep winter. I don’t know how much is influenced by the increased darkness of late fall, but it seems the lack of light outside encourages much scouting about into my interior. The older I become, the more willing I am to dig around in there, but come winter, my ability to look with equanimity decreases. It’s all too easy to see only the shadows, the failings, the humanness that without the light seems full of flaws.

I see the hurts I’ve inflicted on others, the good I’ve failed to do, all while hearing the roar of the endless motion I maintain to keep away from the silence which makes these wrongs scream their loudest. I keep moving, busy even when there is no busy to really be had, avoiding even a moment of stillness for fear that the sadness that descends with I think too much will just be too much. It’s a restless feeling, that undercurrent, rarely affecting my day-to-day duties but undoubtedly coloring my encounters with loved ones and strangers.

Ironically, perhaps, peace and hope can only be found in those silences. That’s the hope of the solstice. I spent much of this last semester feeling bombarded with busyness. What quiet I had I squandered with online Scrabble, Facebook, tasks that didn’t need doing, at least at that time, and other purposeless pursuits. I’ve rarely ever just been doing one thing, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. I model multitasking and the poor outcomes it produces. Mindfulness? Not even when I brush my teeth.

In an attempt to escape my daily patter, I scoured my bookshelves for some light fiction. Not wanting to reread, given the phenomenal number of unread books around here, I reached into my closet to a shelf holding marginal fiction that I might someday be desperate enough to read. (Yes, my shelving habits are that specific.) And thus Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, came to bed with me several weeks back. This is not an amazing read. It is an easy read, however, about a man who takes a cross-country trip with a monk and the changes in that man as he makes that journey. He’s flawed, humans always are, and initially resistant to change. As he journeys, he finds awareness of that something is missing and discovers that stillness — meditation and mindfulness — fill what he did not previously know was empty.

Predictable? Yes. But it reminded me that I’d once tried to reach a more mindful way of being. Some years back, when I was more actively searching for meaning and solace, I reached toward a number of authors on meditation and Buddhist thought, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others. After a scene where Otto, the ordinary man, attempts to meditate with Rinpoche, his traveling monk companion, I returned to my closet. This time, I reached for Pema Chödrön ‘s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’d read years back during my separation. This collection of talks explores, from a Buddhist perspective, how we tend to miss happiness in our rush to escape pain and suffering. Chödrön advocates staying in those fearful places rather than backing away, learning from them while being compassionate to one’s self. Of course, she advocates meditation as a tool to this end.

And so I started, in the darkness of my quietest time of day, that point just before sleep. I read some of Otto’s path and a chapter of When Things Fall Apart.  Or I reread the previous chapter, as Chödrön’s words sometimes need more time to seep in to my distracted mind. And then one night I tried what I’d not really tried for years: meditation. I’m embarrassed to say how unwilling I was to try again what I’ve often felt I’ve failed so miserably in the past. Yes, I know one doesn’t fail meditation, but I’m harder on no one than myself, and I’d left the practice I’d barely begun because I felt I’d failed at it. Starting again, watching my mind wander after a single breath, the greatest challenge has been not giving up at the first hint of perceived failure. It’s hard. It’s a noisy place, up there in my head, filled with ideas, judgements, plans, worries, desires, joys, passions, fears, anger, disappointment, and a good deal of random noise. The silent seconds (nanoseconds?) where it all silences are rare at this point, but I’m hopeful that they will gradually lengthen and become more frequent.

So I’ve started to use the darkness of winter to find some hope. I will sit in its silence and listen to my breath, letting thoughts go and finding what it is just to be. I’ll read from what feeds me and seek out a bit more mindfulness in my day, decreasing the chatter I’ve been using to push away my darkness within. Perhaps there I’ll find the light promised by the solstice.

Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound  when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

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

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.

and

God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

Fragmented

Mom. Homeschooling parent. Physician Assistant. Teacher. Friend. Companion. Housecleaner. Ombudsman. Taxi driver. Cook. Handy(wo)man. Obtainer of All Things Needed. Finder of What is Misplaced, Gardener. Problem solver.

I feel fragmented.

Perhaps it’s the change in weather. The days are shorter. Many are cold and wet. It’s dark when I used to take my walks, the walks that assured me time to regroup and recoup.

Perhaps it’s the season. Holidays loom large. I’m starting to flounder with these days needing preparation: shopping, cooking, decorations, plans. Thanksgiving, just a month away, and this year the kind of Thanksgiving that doesn’t include my boys, a reminder that divorce splits families for good. They are, after all, what I’m most thankful for. And Christmas. With my Christianity gone, I’m struggling with the celebration we continue to do, which I say is for the boys but is really for all of us, ritual we need and want while wondering what means what.

Perhaps it’s struggles of my younger. He’s having a hard time, what with oncoming puberty stacked atop his Aspergers and plenty of anxiety on the side. I’ve been pulled in closer as support and stability, jobs a mom expects, yet to a level not anticipated at this age. And to see a child in such a state of hurt… It pulls me in and under, leaving me gasping for breath and wondering where that oxygen mask is. I can’t put it on if I can’t find it.

Perhaps it’s time, cut in too many tiny pieces to do anything but play Scrabble online, check Facebook, read the shortest articles in the New York Times (days after it comes), answer another question about another math problem, watch my younger closely –again or still — for signs of stress, check my email, and make lists of things that will never get done.

I like my jobs, both paid and unpaid. I feel generally competent at them, and I enjoy the interaction with my children, other people’s children, and the adults whom make up my friends and co-workers. I feel respected professionally, cared for by friends, and often appreciated by my children.  I’m less enamored with the tasks that keep us in food, clothing, and a relatively clean house, of course. But each task is entirely manageable. Together, they seem impossible. 

It’s not just the tasks at hand. It’s all the ones that need attention but aren’t getting it, little and big. The call to the university my older son likes, the one to schedule a day-long visit complete with classes. The presentation for church that will happen in just over two weeks whether it’s written or not. The writing that just isn’t happening because I’m never sure when I’ll be interrupted or because I can’t maintain concentration for more than a few minutes. The books on my nightstand that go unread because I can’t pay attention to them, either. The book that I’m trying to assemble, the one that requires a few hours — or even just an hour — each day of undivided attention I just don’t seem to be able to find.

I’m in pieces. I’m not depressed or anxious or otherwise suffering from existential despair. I’m just in pieces. And most of the pieces are good in themselves. While it’s a hard job, homeschooling my sons is a choice I’m glad to have made, to have continued to make, year after year. I enjoy (most parts) of my relationships with them, and while the stakes seem astronomically high when homeschooling an eleventh grader on the cusp of full-time college, it’s overall a good ride to share.

My professional endeavors — medicine and teaching/editing — feed me deeply. Some of that food is straight ego-stroking — the patient who tells me I am the one who truly listens to her or the young student who stops me mid-class to thank me for teaching him to write, noting he really likes our time together. But some of the professional satisfaction is the challenges of the work itself. Both require close attention to the person I’m with at the time. Both require dropping my own agenda at points, attuning to the patient or student and letting the rest drop away.

The personal encounters — those with my friends and fiancé — feed and sustain me when I’m struggling the most. But even these meetings seem smashed between What Comes Next — classes, cleaning, cooking, calming, driving duty, bills, calls, and chaos management. Too often, they are the punctuation marks more than the paragraphs in my daily essay. This fragmentation (repaired somewhat come next spring, when my dearest companion becomes my spouse) is perhaps the most painful. I love my children, and I enjoy and appreciate their company. But a homeschooling mom in her forties who also teaches the children of others starts to get a bit twitchy when days go by without substantive contact with those over the age of 30. I want conversation about things other than Minecraft, computers, comma placement, and tropical fish. (The last is interesting for a while, until the lists of fish are repeated.)  I love my children, and my older is learning to be a somewhat empathetic listener who actually asks how I am and listens for the answer. But still…

So tonight I’m writing, (almost) alone in my home, enjoying the peace sustained attention brings. The presentation/sermon is nearly done, needing only an hour or so of polishing and (likely) shortening. This cathartic piece, almost complete, reminds me of the threads upon which the beads of my life rest connect what can seem broken and unbound.  When I can connect those pieces and roles, seeing them as cohesive wholes and not tiny pieces of me, I’m more settled and more likely to find the time to finish the book, edit the essays, or even veg in front of a show (scandalous!). This sense of quiet and wholeness may not last even another half-hour, but for now, it is here. So I sit with it, feel the connections, and just breathe.