Category Archives: personal

Social Isolation and the Awkward Girlfriend Moment

Social isolation and depression can become a self-fulfilling circle of pain. In fact, I’m still fairly sure that my current depression is caused largely BY my social isolation, especially because it lifted so almost-completely during the month when my sister (and, thus, many other people) was/were staying with us.

I had a book club last night where pretty much everyone, or nearly everyone, had been feeling isolated for one reason or another, and we were all so grateful to be in human company again that we were tripping over each other to connect. It was like having several sudden gulps of air after being held under water for many minutes – heady and thrilling and life-giving and even a little chaotic.

And this is the problem with the sparse, deep-breath connections you have with people when you’re not living in regular community – every interaction becomes fraught with way more meaning and nuance than it should. In last night’s share-fest, there was a certain heightened, ecstatic breathlessness to our conversation, which was (I think, and I hope for everyone) refreshing and affirming and nourishing. But if something had gone wrong, that heightened quality could have turned a social deep breath into a lungful of water.

I’m contrasting last night’s experience with an experience I had a couple months ago, another deep-breath occasion, in which an acquaintance of mine, who is usually bright and affirming, was apparently having some kind of really bad day (I didn’t ask, it wasn’t a deep-sharing kind of gathering, but her energy, if you’ll excuse the word, was very, uncharacteristically negative). She was muddling through the event, but it was clear she wasn’t very happy, and her humor had taken on a caustic edge. She made one joke at my expense that I wasn’t very troubled about, but then 15 minutes later she made another one that really hit home, highlighted an aspect of my personality that I am aware of and insecure about and ashamed of, and I was kind of done for the night after that.

If I still lived in community, if I had friends readily available for convos and comfort, if I were still surrounded by a lot of people who make me feel safe and likeable, I probably could have shaken this off in an evening, maybe two. I’m 90% sure that this acquaintance didn’t mean anything by her comments. But because I didn’t have enough people around to counteract the negative, I couldn’t be 100% sure, and so her comment crushed me. Crushed. Me. Was this what she really thought of me? I’d thought we liked each other. Do other people talk about me like this behind my back? Is this everyone’s primary perception of me? Is everyone secretly just tolerating my presence? I cried for three days. I was inconsolable. My husband tried heroically to make me feel better and failed. Finally I called my sister, and she knew all the right affirming things to say to snap me out of it. (Have I mentioned how awesome my sister is?).

And the other part of this is that because of the social isolation, I’m not even sure it’s worth bringing up with her. When every interaction is precious gold in the hand, is it worth it to risk tainting one of those moments by bringing up something that she probably doesn’t even remember, because she really DIDN’T mean anything by it? Or what if the reverse happens, and it turns out she really secretly DOESN’T like me – we socialize in overlapping circles, it’s not like I can NOT run into her. So that could be awkward – in fact, could taint many more deep breath occasions down the line. Five years ago, I could have easily been a grown-up and just checked in with her, and even if it turned out she didn’t care for me, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have needed to grieve a little, but, you know, you can’t please everyone, and there were plenty of other people to socialize with, just tolerating each other would have been fine. But now I feel like I’ve been transported back to junior high, where her opinion of me matters much more than I’d like to admit, and so the politics become weird and tense, and checking in about a hurtful off-hand comment seems like a very dangerous endeavor.

Living in isolation seriously skews your sense of perspective.

The thing is that I know I have days where I’m the perpetrator rather than the victim of this probably-unintended negativity – days where I am bringing the thunderstorm with me, and good luck to you if you happen to stand in the way. Depression and isolation only make this worse.

And I hope with all my heart that the friends who have been on the other end of that have had healthy enough communities to brush it off – “Meghan shouldn’t have said that, she must be in a really bad place right now, maybe I’ll say something about it next time we see each other,” but I know statistically that’s not true. We are lonely in the West. Mother Theresa thought it was our great tragedy.

I don’t have a good way to finish this post, so I’ll end with a wish – it is my wish for all of you that you have vibrant, supportive communities, that you dwell in an emotional place where you know you are deeply loved and loveable, a spectacular and unrepeatable member of the world.

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The Thankscraziness Post.

I was going to put off all further blogging until Dec., when National Novel Writing Month will be over, but I find myself ruthlessly procrastinating today anyway, so I may as well be procrasti-writing.

First, a sincere and heartfelt thank-you to those of you who expressed sadness or frustration that the blog fell asleep for so long. I’m touched. Really. Thank you for reading.

Second, here’s some of the stuff I’ve been up to in the meantime:

1. Ahem. I wrote a little play. It’s called Her Story in Blood, and it revisits and reimagines the story from the synoptic gospels of the woman who bled for 12 years. You are more than welcome to read it while you are waiting for the next blog post. And, you know, pass it around to your friends and plaster it over social media and let me know if you know anyone who wants to stage it. 😉  [BONUS: You get to see who I really am! With my real name and everything! Well, my professional pen name anyway. More professional than “Fairy Bear.”]

2. It’s National Novel Writing Month! And I have a little over 5,000 words to WIN! So I am seriously going to be buckling down and writing for real. Write* after I finish procrasti-writing this post.

*I was going to go back and edit that last sentence to read “Right” at the beginning, but I decided to leave it. That’s where my brain is. That’s where it should stay.

3. I finished shooting a short film with a friend! I have a few still shots, but I don’t think I’m allowed to show them to you yet.

4. I started teaching again! And I also have made peace with it. More or less. I think. We’re starting with a fun social studies unit, anyway, in which I get to bring in my friend’s TARDIS and take the kids time-traveling to ancient Greece. Yes, I brought togas. (Properly, peplos, as togas were Roman, but essentially they’re togas.)

5. Traveling! I went to visit my sister for a week in Florida to help her pack up her apartment. And also to help me say goodbye to the apartment, which really was heavenly. Two words: Rooftop pool. Okay, two more words: Harbor views. She will very happily be staying with me for much of December, so I don’t have to say goodbye to her just yet, but leaving the apartment was hard. Even though it wasn’t actually mine. Not gonna lie.

PS – I took some photos of the amazing sunrises I got to see in Florida. They’re posted on my Instagram. Which is named after my professional pen name. Which you can find if you link to my play. Hint.

Then of course there’s been all the regular life stuff. Like grocery shopping, burning eggs to rubber because my brain starts to atrophy with boredom when I cook, mulling endlessly over emotional obstacles because I’m *that* kind of person, and getting a paper cut that made my whole hand swell up. I am also slated to visit with three families this weekend – my nieces, my hubby’s family, and my best friend’s family.

All that together in a 30-day month makes this a Thankscrazy season! And I am crazy thankful, emotional obstacles not withstanding. Here are a few things I’m thankful for this month:

1. My patient and dedicated hubby.

2. 8 perfect St. Pete sunrises.

3. Being able to quote the entirety of whole 80’s and 90’s movies with my family.

4. Starbucks Skinny Vanilla Lattes.

5. The dedicated and fabulous early-morning crew at my favorite Starbucks, who are ludicrously cheerful and efficient at 6:30am.

6. Hubby driving me to work in the mornings.

7. If I have to teach, at least I get to do cool stuff. Like travel in a TARDIS.

8. Heat. Especially on days like this.

9. Enough money that I can eat breakfast at Starbucks if I choose instead of burning eggs.

10. This wonderful computer.

11. Scrivener software. Seriously, where have you BEEN all my life?

12. Wine and beer.

13. This song. For real. I can’t stop watching this.:

14. My mom, who is awesome.

15. Pottermore, even though I’m suddenly spending waaaaaay too much time on it. So much so that I’m embarrassed to tell you how high my dueling score is after a mere week of practice. (Ravenclaw in da house!). Still. There’s something kind of meditative about the dueling format – it forces me to be totally in the moment. I find it very calming.

16. My spiritual community. Especially Transmission, and my two book clubs, and my writer’s group(s).

17. All the pep talks from NaNoWriMo people who keep me writing this novel down. And the ones from my sister. And my hubby.

18. The opportunity to catch up with my brother and talk business and marketing and all kinds of other things not normally related to my day-to-day.

19. A perfect Sabbath this past Saturday, which included the 50th Anniversary global simul-cast Doctor Who special.

20. The Whodle created by Google for the occasion. 🙂  I can’t find a working one archived anywhere (please let me know if you know where to find it!), but here’s a most impressive round by someone who was definitely not me:

21. Nerdy friends with whom to bond over things like Doctor Who and Pottermore.

22. Twitter. I love Twitter. Who knew?

23. Wine and beer.

24. Yoga. Hot yoga. Vinyasa yoga. Ashtanga yoga.

25. All the books who walk with me through my life, keeping me company and carrying hope. A Secret Garden. A Little Princess. Heidi. Harry Potter. Narnia.

26. New books that offer me hope. Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Also Occupy Spirituality, by Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox, which I was supposed to review on this very blog probaby weeks ago, but I keep crying every time I pick it up, so it’s slow going. Crying in a good way. It’s very beautiful to me.

27. The opportunity to see my nieces in two days.

28. Being cozy on a rainy November night like tonight.

29. My facebook community. Seriously. I love Facebook. I don’t think it replaces face time in pure quality, but it’s wonderful for keeping in touch with people who are very far away, especially for someone like me who is even worse at letter-writing than at cooking.

30. You, dear readers. I know, I’m getting squeamish at how that sounds too, but really, if you read this, I’m thankful for you, because you remind that I’m not alone, and that perhaps my many words are not completely wasted. Cheers.

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Filed under #OccupyWallStreet, Harry Potter, personal

The First Rule of Blogging.

The first rule of blogging is to keep a regular posting schedule.

Blllppbpbpbpbppbh.

Rules are overrated.

I am sorry for dropping out of the blogging game at random, unannounced moments, for those of you who actually read this. I hit a slump a few weeks ago and haven’t quite managed to make myself functional again yet.

It’s not really a mystery why I hit a slump. I looked at the calendar and said, “It’s September. Time to start teaching again,” and I called up my old job and asked if I could come back. Just like that. I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t even pray about it. I certainly didn’t discuss it with my husband. It was like some kind of automated shame reflex. “I haven’t been miserable for a year, so I haven’t earned my existence.”

And I was really, really hoping that my coordinator would say, “Oh, I’m sorry, the funding has been cut for that program, we don’t have enough work to take you back.” But they didn’t. It’s kind of a curse to be really good at something you really hate. Cuz people keep asking you to do it. They said, “Oh, thank GOD, we were going to call you this week anyway to see if you would consider coming back. How many classes can you take?” It’s so hard to walk away from a place where you’re so needed and appreciated, even if you hate yourself for selling out.

And I haven’t done a single creative thing since. Well, I painted a picture on my last sabbath. Of a tiny boat in a storm. Here:

Storm_painting[1]

Here’s how I feel about teaching:

I hate teaching.

I hate teaching.

I hate teaching. I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.I hate teaching.

And the thing is, I actually have a perfectly viable plan for making a living in a way that doesn’t involve teaching. I lost some steam when we had to go to Taipei, and when we came back, instead of building up steam again, I let inertia take over and then my reflex kicked in and I called my old job, and here we are, in full shame spiral.

Examples. Here are some things I was planning to blog about:

1. The end of the Fundiementals series – my favorite topics, too, on authenticity and vulnerability.

2. Anniversary posts – lots of gooey reminiscing about B’s and my wedding last year, as well as reflections on married life and maybe a delirious ode or two. Like, that was pretty much going to be the whole month.

3. More Bible reflections.

4. Thoughts on Taipei, family, the Canfield Fair, travel.

5. Post on mindfulness.

Here is what I have actually been spending my time on:

1. Facebook.

2. Twitter.

3. YouTube.

4. How I Met Your Mother.

5 Project Runway.

6. Analyzing Miley Cyrus. (On Facebook).

WTF? Why am I a special kind of crazy? That’s all for now. Sheesh.

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Bricks without Straw: A Reflection on Teaching.

Fundiementals returns on Monday. Continuing now with my Bible notes – Exodus Chapter 5 reminds me so much of teaching it’s scary. Deserves its own post.

Pharaoh Myers

“And Pharoah/Principal/Superintendent/Chancellor Myers said, “Your funds have been cut, and you shall have more children in each class, and each of you will have less help because there is no money for teacher’s aides. Yet you will be punished if your children do not succeed at the same rate as before.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can we teach as effectively as before when we have more children and less help?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. And there will be no more free breakfast, for the city has decided that these freeloaders cannot take the well-earned money of the producers of society. And there will furthermore be no more Head Start program, for the same reason.”

And the teachers cried out, “But how can our students learn if they are fasting every day? And how can we make up the difference in our students’ knowledge base without the help of additional programming, when we are already teaching with more children and less help?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you shall be punished if your students do not maintain and even increase their standardized test scores. You will lose funding, and there shall be no art class or music program or sports teams because we must concentrate on testing skills. And there shall be no recess because we must not waste time on play. Yet you must maintain the same level of order in your classrooms and increase your student’s test scores.”

Your students have only improved by 50%! You have brought shame on all of us! More paperwork for you!

And the teachers cried out, “But how can five year olds, who are developmentally, biologically programmed to learn through play, learn in this way that forces them to sit as adults for six hours at a time with no break? And how are they to learn how to manage social skills if they never get to interact with one another freely? Don’t we already have an epidemic of violence and bullying in our schools?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, there is no time for anything except reading and math and test scores. They will improve, you will improve them, or you will be punished.”

And the teachers replied, “But how can the children understand anything that they are reading about if they have had no exposure to anything in the books? How can we teach children to understand books that are about art and music and games and places and experiences that they have never, ever experienced? How can we accomplish this without enrichment programs and field trips?”

And Principal Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will raise your student’s test scores and not make measly excuses. You will be punished when you fail.”

And the teachers replied, “May we at least use the lessons that we have practiced and perfected over our careers to help us raise our students’ scores?

And Pharaoh Myers replied, “No, you must use this new mandated curriculum, and your students’ scores will increase.”

And the teachers replied, “But we do not know this new curriculum. Wouldn’t our time be better spent individualizing our own methods to each of the many children in our classes, especially now that we have more children with less help and no enrichment?”

And Pharoah Myers replied, “No, you will use the mandated curriculum and learn it, and implement it without mistake, because it is teacher-proof, and the program will raise your students’ test scores. And if your students’ test scores are not raised by the program, you will be punished. The fault will be yours, not the program’s. And you will do this while I increase your paperwork load by 500% as you input ongoing test scores for data-driven instruction and monthly reports and flawless bulletin boards for when my inspectors come around to make sure that you are following all our instructions and increasing students’ test scores. ”

And the teachers replied, “But why must we spend valuable classroom time administering weekly tests to kindergarteners, who can barely hold their pencils yet, and whose learning at this stage in brain development is not linear as with an older child?”

Pharaoh Myers replied, “Nevertheless, you will do this, and if you fail to bring up your students’ test scores, you will be punished.”

Yes, it was really that monotonous. And, at times, insane. And heartbreaking. And hopeless-feeling. For me, anyway. I actually didn’t realize how strongly I still felt about this, how overwhelmed and angry and embittered toward the ed system, until I read this passage on the same day that I had a meeting with a friend about some social justice work. And I broke down crying at the memory of the time when I used to care so much about helping children who needed a boost, who weren’t born with a head start, and how painful it was to go back into battle every single day against all these forces that were in place to make your job nigh-on impossible.

I’m not sure I ever really let myself feel the defeat before. It feels so dark and hopeless to know that any little light that you can give a child on any given day has only a slim chance of surviving the onslaught of crap that the child will face for the rest of the day, and you’re going to be starting from scratch again tomorrow, and nothing is ever going to get better, and you’ll always, at best, only be half a step ahead of the darkness threatening to bring you down. That’s how I felt anyway. A suburban teacher in a well-funded school with aides and a regularly renewed library and parents with ample time to volunteer might have a very different experience. Or not. At any rate, our public schools are not all created equal.

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Fundiementals 4 – Spiritual Abuse

So. Spiritual abuse. I take a deep breath before plunging into this one.

The definition of “abuse” is misuse, especially with the effect or intention of harm. For example – physical abuse is the misuse of strength. Strength is not a bad thing in itself; it can be used to protect, defend, build, help, and serve, but in the case of abuse it is meant to inflict pain and to control another person. Verbal abuse is the misuse of words. Words by themselves are not bad; they can be used to reveal, to bond, to encourage, to inspire, to illuminate, to make clear, to edify, etc. In the case of abuse, words are used to demean, punish, control, and inflict pain on another person. Emotional abuse is the misuse of the emotional bond between two people. Normally, and optimally, bonding is a gift, an enrichment of life, satisfying and fulfilling, the food and water of our social and emotional lives. In cases of emotional abuse, the emotional bond, and the threat of its removal or withholding, is used to punish, manipulate, and control people. So it goes with all kinds of abuse, including spiritual abuse.

Whereas spirituality, or your framework for the Big Questions, is meant to widen and deepen your life, set you free from the unhealthy patterns of your family and society, help you mourn your losses and mark your major transitions appropriately, and offer you meaning, spiritual abuse is the misuse of these systems of belief to control, manipulate, punish, and exclude other people.

Spiritual abuse has slippery definitions. There are those who attempt to confine it to particular systems of belief, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, or as I once heard Chris Stedman refer to them, the “totalitarian religions.” I get what he was saying, and I believe that the structures for abuse are more immediately in place in these religious systems, but I myself have experienced spiritual abuse in an atheist context, and a friend of mine has experienced it in a yoga context. I really do not believe that there is a system of belief or spiritual practice that is immune from the dynamic.

But it does cause problems of definition, because you can’t just say “the misuse of God’s name and interpretation of His authority to punish, control, and exclude people,” although that certainly does happen, and certainly does qualify as spiritual abuse. But it excludes atheists, yogis, buddhists, and others who do not subscribe to a monotheistic, authoritative God, but who are still vulnerable to spiritual abuse.

So I guess my working definition would be any situation in which there is an appeal to a higher authority that is used to demean, control, punish, or exclude a person. The higher authority can be God, or it can be Reason, or a particular human leader, or it can be a certain prescribed set of practices. The thing that makes it spiritual abuse is that the higher authority is taken to be flawless, and the person or community appealing to the higher authority is taken to be the nearly-flawless mouthpiece of this perfect authority, and any deviance that you show from their interpretation of spiritual or intellectual perfection is grounds for you to be demeaned, excluded, punished, controlled, etc.

These spokespeople for the higher authority may admit to very minor flaws. For example, a small group leader at a church might confess to not spending as much time in the Word as he feels he ought, but he would never confess to doubting the validity or consistency of scripture, beating his wife, harboring gay fantasies, or whatever else is considered across the line of acceptability. And if, God forbid, you confess to something across the line, or are caught engaging in something unsanctioned, there will be strong efforts by the leader and the community to demean, discount, discipline, sanction, control, and/or exclude you, and it will be done in the name of love, in the name of God, out of concern for your spiritual well-being. In my case, the (atheist) abuser in question would give lip service to being a flawed human, but in practice, any opinion that deviated from his was “irrational,” wrong, threatening, “primitive,” “uncivilized,” and/or just did not adhere to the rigors of Reason (a standard which he alone, apparently, was able to navigate). And if you weren’t going to be governed by the laws of Reason, then you were no better than an animal; human trash, excluded from the ranks of “real” people, deserving of “tough love” (discipline, exclusion) so that you could learn just how wrong you had been.

The common thread here, from my vantage point, is the fundie pre-occupation with being Right. It comes back to that idea that the Whole Truth is singular, obvious, and small enough for a single person to perceive in its entirety. There is no room for dissent or debate, no allowance for the possibility of partial and incomplete truths, different paths around the truth – people who evolve into different ideas or have contrary experiences are dismissed as “fallen” in some way; they are immediately perceived as “less-than” or infected, and so everything they say is suspect. So people in these systems (and when I say “systems” I mean things as small as a family or marriage unit and as large as a major religious sect) find themselves in a catch-22. They can continue to toe the party line in order to gain the respect of their peers, but they lose themselves. Or they can be honest (truthful) about their perceptions and experiences, knowing that they will immediately be treated as a second-class citizen (best case scenario) or an outright devil/traitor/threat (worst case scenario), and be kicked out entirely.

You can find a lot more on spiritual abuse in other places. These are all specific to Christianity, where it is rampant:

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/kristen-rosser-spiritual-abuse

http://www.soulation.org/freeatlast/

http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

http://www.micsem.org/pubs/counselor/frames/spiritabuse.htm

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Fundiementals 2 – Description vs. Meaning

Continuing from the last post, in which I talked about how worked up fundies get about The Truth, and why I think we should all relax. Here’s another reason I think we should all relax.

In the last post, I started with the example of a conversation I had with a Very Concerned Relative, who was interpreting some Bible passages for me. To review, where the verse says “The Father wants worshipers who will worship in spirit and in truth,” she (with the help of her denomination) interpreted that to mean “having the correct information.” I would be “in truth” only when I had studied and acquired the correct information (read: the correct doctrines.) (Read: her doctrines).

In my experience, fundies across the board seem to define “truth” very narrowly as rigid accuracy about scriptural doctrines (Christians, Jews, etc.), and/or specific philosophical interpretations of material facts (atheists). To fundies, you are “in truth” if you are “right” or “correct” in your knowledge and consciously held beliefs. You are “in truth” if you understand the correct information – about creation, about evolution, about end times, about ritual cleanliness, about sin, about science, whatever. Whatever their cherished notions about the nature of reality, you are “in truth” if you agree with them. And only if you agree with them. Otherwise you’re a poor, deluded bastard.

A word here about science, because I know I’m going to get my butt kicked if I don’t make this distinction right now. Rigid accuracy about correct information is COMPLETELY APPROPRIATE to the scientific method. It’s necessary. I am NOT saying that evolution and creationism are equal and competing scientific theories about the origins of the universe. I am NOT claiming that we should all be able to bring the Bible into laboratories and conduct our experiments according to Levitical law. I’m NOT claiming that in science, you need to respect pseudo-scientific claims that have nothing to do with material reality. In science, which deals with the nature of the material, observable universe, it is necessary and appropriate to be ruthlessly accurate about the material, observable facts.

My only point is that in spirituality, it’s not. In fact, and I haven’t fully thought through the implications of this statement, science might be the only domain in which it is appropriate to apply a standard of ruthless accuracy. If you are approaching spiritual and scripture texts from a standpoint of needing to achieve ruthless accuracy, then you are approaching them with a very modern, scientific mindset, and not in the spirit in which they were written. In science, “truth” about material facts is very important. It is precisely in spirituality where the kind of “truth” that becomes important is not about having correct, literal information at all.

Spiritual truth is about trying to nudge up against the more elusive aspects of the human experience in a way that gives meaning and narrative to the bare facts and bewildering pain of existence. Scientific truth can accurately describe the mechanism of a natural disaster, but it is spiritual truth that helps you grieve; it is spiritual truth that helps you come to grips with the bare thorn of real life. Science asks “How does it work?” Spirituality asks “What does it mean?” (metaphysically). And even if you answer the “What does it mean?” question using scientific observations, the question itself is not native to science – science deals with the physical, not the metaphysical.

A brief digression here. I know many atheists cringe and back away from the word “spirituality,” but I’m trying to use it in a very broad, broad sense. I’m sorry I don’t have a better, more neutral word to use for shorthand. I could call it “the framework of beliefs, attitudes, habits, and interactions through which you perceive, interpret, and create meaning in your life.” Or to put it another way, your “spirituality,” in the sense in which I am using it, is how you choose to interact with the facts of your life and let them inform and change you (or not). It’s your way of being in the world. It’s how you ask and answer the eternal questions, “Who am I?” “Do I have a purpose?” “How will I make my life meaningful?” “What would it mean to live my life well?” “What are the best ways to interact with those around me?”Even if you answer the questions by negating the idea of purpose, selfhood, ultimate meaning, etc., the fact that you even asked and answered the question indicates a particular framework, or spirituality, as I am calling it in shorthand.

Back to applying a scientific lens to a spiritual text. A quote here from Richard Rohr:

“Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text. Willful people use Scripture literally when it serves their purposes, and they use it ‘figuratively’ when it gets in the way of their cultural biases; willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”

In science, literalism and accuracy are king, and they should be. In meaning-making, literalism becomes too small. Consider these three statements:

1. The animate life that we observe today on earth evolved over millennia out of the raw materials of earth, from simple one-cell organisms into increasingly complex forms. Eventually, in billions of years, the sun will expire and the earth will no longer support life.

2. Life has struggled mightily to survive against the dangers and emptiness of space, and its improbable success is overshadowed by the knowledge that in the distant future, nothing will remain of its struggle. (“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – Macbeth)

3. Life was created by God in a pocket of His vast universe. He took his time molding it from stardust, and to dust it shall return. (“Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” – Ecclesiastes)

#1 is a scientific statement. It is literal and as accurate as our evidence and analysis can make it. Statements #2 and #3 are meaning-making statements about #1. They are interpretive. They make an evaluation about the metaphysical and/or existential and/or moral implications of the bare facts. They are spiritual statements. I’m not claiming that they are statements that you subscribe to, or that either of them is Ultimate Truth, I’m only using them as examples of possible meaning-making statements based on #1.  Neither are literal or absolute in their truth, and the most significant difference between them is that #2 is based on an idea of a closed system, whereas #3 is based on an idea of outside involvement (God). Despite this notable difference, both #2 and #3 come to more or less the same conclusion.

My book club read “Life of Pi” a few months ago, and there was a lot of discussion about the nature of truth, God, choices, belief, etc. The most problematic passage seemed to be the bit at the end (SPOILER ALERT) where the following dialogue occurs:

“I tell you two stories. In both stories, the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

…. “The story with the animals.”

“Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

(END SPOILER ALERT)

We had a lot of discussion about what the author meant by this, and I should note that we did not come to consensus, but to me it meant precisely what I’m trying to say here – in both of my previous statements, the universe comes into existence, life flourishes for a while, and then it stops. Outside of these bald facts, you have no way of proving one way or another whether or not God was involved, so which story do you prefer? Which one offers more meaning to your sensibilities? Which one resonates more with your experience? Which one offers you the experience of transcendence? (And I’m not claiming that your answer to that question has to be the same as everyone else’s). When discussing the evolution of species from a biological perspective, by all means get persnickety about material accuracy.  When discussing things of God, or metaphysics, or morality, or in some other way a spiritual nature, material accuracy is less important than the story you tell about it. (Although, as an aside and counterpoint, even in Christian spirituality, a case can be made for letting science help tell the story.)

In fact, this point about stories is so important, I think I’ll give it its own post….

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Fundiementals 1 – in Truth.

“But what do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you think it’s important to study the scriptures? You must believe something about the end of days. You mean you haven’t thought about it at all? But how can you have faith if you don’t know about end times?” She looks alarmed, and genuinely confused by my obstinacy.

“I don’t really think God finds it terribly important whether I have correct doctrine about the end of the world.  I can’t imagine God punishing me for choosing the wrong academic stance on the Rapture, since it’s something that I have no way of knowing about anyway. If something like the Rapture does happen, I imagine it will take care of itself, regardless of my opinion of it. I just don’t see it as very relevant.” I’m talking too fast and I can feel a flush start to creep defensively up my neck, and I know this conversation is starting to get away from me.

“But the Bible DOES tell us what will happen in the end times. How can you not care? It says right here,” she flips frantically to John 4:23, “that Jehovah wants worshipers who will worship in spirit and in truth, IN TRUTH, so how can you not be concerned with the truths of the Bible?!” She looks at me in pained frustration, her voice thinning at the top of her speaking range, palms open in helplessness at my appalling lack of interest in eschatology (the doctrines about End Times).

This is a conversation I had several years ago with a family member. Or as near a re-creation as I can manage. Actually, this was pretty much the end of that conversation because my head was starting to hurt from flipping back and forth through at least half the books in the Bible, trying to follow her train of thought around a maze of proof-texts. (“Proof-texting,” by the way, if you don’t know, is the practice of flipping triumphantly to some particular verse  in scripture, usually taken out of context, and waving it in a discussion as if it “proves” your point and makes your position unassailable. It’s often accompanied by the phrase “The Bible CLEARLY says.” Or that’s my definition. Others may have a different experience.)

I literally painted this right after the above conversation. That's what it felt like.

I literally painted this right after the above conversation. That’s what it felt like.

There are a lot of things I could say about that conversation, but the particular moment described above is the part that has stayed with me for years because it gets at the heart of something I’ve been trying to name for a long time. It has something to do with what defines fundamentalism and separates fundamentalism from genuine spirituality. It’s something that I need to name for myself, as a recovering fundamentalist (first an atheist fundamentalist, then a Christian fundamentalist). I am going to try and write my way around it and make some kind of sense, and I called this post “Fundiementals 1” because I imagine it will take me more than one post to find what I’m trying to say.

Going back to the conversation with my Very Concerned Relative who was so worried about my lack of interest in “biblical truth.” Every fundamentalist I have ever personally known (Christian, Jewish, and atheist) was very, very concerned with the Truth. It was/is a central preoccupation of his or her life. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Everyone should be interested in truth; life is pretty pointless if you’re living a lie.  Poisonous thoughts can make you (and everyone around you) miserable – this is a basic premise of both theology and psychology. And the spiritual tradition that I now find myself anchored in, the Christian tradition, has some very nice things to say about truth. “The truth shall set you free.” “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” “For this I was born and for this I came into the world – to speak the truth. All who are for truth hear my voice.” (Okay that last one was translated from Master and Margarita, so I”m not totally sure if it’s a real Jesus quote or not and I’m too lazy to look it up.) But somehow when fundies tell me I should be concerned with “truth” (and I have been both the fundie and her hapless victim), the fundie always seems to mean something very different than what I am coming to understand “truth” to be.

When I was a fundie (and I surely have some fundie bits still clinging to my soul – it’s a long road out of hell), I was very concerned with having the “right” beliefs. This started with my Randian atheism, and I was encouraged by my father, Ms. Rand, and others, to cling to those beliefs as if I were clinging to reality itself. They were my badge of proof that I was “enlightened,” that I was “tethered to reality,” that I wasn’t one of those poor deluded fools who still believed in superstitious, barbaric, capricious, and bloodthirsty gods, and who clung to their imaginary men in the sky in order to avoid the fear and pain and responsibility of Real Life. I was lucky to have graduated from such silliness at a young age so that I could live my life to the fullest, free of cumbersome and archaic institutions, freed by Science and Reason and Ms. Rand herself.

Then I had a radical encounter with God that I don’t think will be undone in this lifetime (although never say never), and became a Christian. I say this like it was past tense, but in fact I still encounter God on a regular basis, and am still a Christian, though not like the Christian I was for the first year or two. For the first year or two, I’d say I was still a fundie. I took my preoccupation with being “Right” and easily transferred it to my new beliefs about my encounter. Like all fundies, I was a purist. It was self-evident to me that all my old beliefs had been false and that I now had the Truth, and it was important to me to talk to people about the Truth because I wanted them to have the same joy I had. It was sincere and well-meant, but still fundie, because I mistakenly believed that it was my new beliefs that had set me free, and that I had to cleave to the new beliefs.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the beliefs that set me free, it was the Encounter. I’m going to say that one more time because it’s worth repeating. It was not my beliefs about my Encounter that set me free, it was the Encounter itself. My beliefs about it were largely irrelevant. I dwell in the Christian tradition, so I call it an encounter with the risen Jesus, and that works for me, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s just call it an encounter with Reality.

Second spoiler alert: Reality is not the same thing as your beliefs about Reality. Reality is this huge, cosmic Thing with so many billions of colors and parts and aspects and characterizations that no one and nothing can hold even the millionth part of it wholly in their minds. No idea, doctrine, philosophy, theology, person, institution, academic institution, or belief system has the lock on it.

I’m going to take that second point first. I went to a workshop once on how to have a true dialogue, and we were given an object lesson on the nature of truth. The facilitator brought out an opaque box, like a large shoe box, and it had two peep holes cut in it – one on the top and one on the side. He asked a volunteer to come and peek through the top hole, and a different volunteer to peek through the side hole. Then he asked them what was in the box. “A triangle,” said one, while the other answered simultaneously, “A rectangle.”  We all chuckled, and the leader asked, “Who is correct? Who has the truth?” The leader then lifted the top and sides off the box to reveal the contents – a triangular pillar. From the top, you could only see the triangle. From the side, you saw the flat rectangular face of the pillar.

From the wonderful David Hayward, the Naked Pastor. Click through any of his cartoons for more.

The lesson here is obvious, but I’m going to expound upon it anyway. Both volunteers were correct, and neither had the Truth. In the workshop, this was a cute lesson, and it was civil because both participants knew they only had part of the truth. They were still momentarily confused by their different descriptions of the hidden reality in the box. Each briefly suspected that maybe the other was messing with him, or was in cahoots with the facilitator to play a prank on him, or maybe just didn’t have kindergarten level geometry, but nobody was up in arms about it, and we all had a good laugh when we saw what was causing the confusion.

Imagine what might have happened if neither of them knew there was a second peephole in the box, and they both got really invested in being “right” about what THEY saw in the box. It’s silly to get really worked up about something like that, but that’s exactly the kind of silliness that happens between fundies of different stripes all the time. They find a little piece of truth that was laying across their particular path and they get so excited that they start waving it around and mistaking it for the Whole Truth, and then they get really angry and defensive and frustrated when someone else is insisting that they see a triangle in the box when CLEARLY it’s a rectangle.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek truth. Again, living a lie is pointless, and can make you either malicious or ignorant. And I’m not saying you haven’t found some truth, or that any of your beliefs are necessarily incorrect (although I’d like everyone to be able to acknowledge the possibility that they might hold an incorrect belief, or two). I believe we are all given at least one piece of the puzzle, and at least one person to love. But even if all your individual beliefs are exactly correct, they still can’t help but be incomplete, because of the natural limitations of any one person’s experience. So all I’m suggesting is a truce in the War Over Truth. I’m going to suggest that we follow the workshop facilitator’s advice – in any conversation or encounter with another human being, assume that their perception and experiences are genuine, and of equal value to yours. In fact, go ahead and assume that they might have some very valuable perspective to share. Maybe they’ve been farther into the box than you. You don’t have to abandon your whole world-view, which is also legitimate because it comes from your experience – just be open to the possibility that this person has discovered some small piece of the puzzle that you haven’t, and that you might discover something new if you listen carefully. Listening first is a great way to take the log out of your own eye before worrying about the splinter in the eye of your conversation partner. It also offers your conversation partner the dignity of their honest experience. It’s non-violent conversation. It’s also a form of humility. I’m sure there is a reason that humility is so often paired with wisdom in the scriptures.

Not an example of non-violent conversation. More Naked Pastor.

Speaking of listening first, here’s what the facilitator had to say about listening. This changed my life. Seriously. If it doesn’t change yours, then you’re probably much more mature than I was at the time of the workshop. The facilitator explained to us the five levels of listening. (There’s a high likelihood that I’m remembering these imperfectly, but this is the best I can do because I’ve long since lost my notes). They are:

1. Not listening (e.g., checking facebook while you pretend to listen, multi-tasking, completely distracted). I am totally guilty of this on a regular basis.

2. Listening only for your turn (you know the person who only listens for an opening to interrupt and insert their own story/opinion/etc, usually only barely related to the topic at hand? Yeah.) Also guilty.

3. Listening to form a response (you’re spending your “listening” moment organizing your response instead of really taking in new information). Still guilty.

4. Related to #3, listening only to agree or disagree (listening so you can evaluate, or form a judgment). Also guilty.

5. Listening with your full attention. At this level, you are not worried about your opinions or response yet. Not that you won’t form them later, listening is not the same as agreeing, but you are fully present to what the other person is saying right now. You are receiving their story and perspective to the fullest extent you are able, without being distracted by external noise (#1) or internal noise (#’s 2, 3, and 4). I occasionally achieve this.

Listening at level 5 is extremely important for certain relationships in your life. Your marriage, your kids, your close friends. God. (Meditation is a form of Level 5 listening). Anyone who has been listened to at that level knows it to be a deeply affirming experience. Anyone who has listened at that level knows it to be a shared deeply affirming experience.

Even in more casual conversations with acquaintances about religion or politics, listening at #5 makes the exchange extraordinarily positive in tone, even between people with vastly different belief systems.

“Listening Wins.” Seriously. I can’t get enough Naked Pastor.

And you should be able to allow yourself to do this because at the end of the day, what you think about the nature of the universe is really not that important. Some thoughts and forms of truth are important, and those are coming up in future posts. For example, if someone is getting hurt, if injustices are being perpetrated, etc., by all means make a lot of noise. I truly believe that your opinion of the Rapture does not fall into this category. Your opinion of the Rapture by itself is going to neither make you miserable nor set you free. Your opinion of the Rapture is not that important to your search for meaning and purpose in life.

What’s important is Encounter. With your deepest self, with others, with Reality. It has been my felt experience that some people get there through religion.*** And some people get there through science. And some people get there through yoga or meditation or nature. Some possibly do get there by studying the scriptures devoted to eschatology, and to those people, I apologize for treating it lightly here.

Encounters are life-stretching things, and we can use our beliefs to either try to make sense of them, or try to shield ourselves from them. I’m going to give examples from Christianity and atheism here, because those are the two faith demographics that I know most intimately, but I think the principles apply across many religions and belief systems.

To the extent that your beliefs about Jesus give you a framework for understanding your encounters, and your “faith walk” stretches and humbles and awes and challenges you, and you see more love in the universe with each passing season, and you are more inspired and challenged to care about the suffering of your fellow man because of your deepening sense of justice, then you are using your beliefs to make sense of your encounter.

To the extent that your beliefs about Jesus keep you safe and shielded, and reassure you that you are in the winning group, and make you either combative, judgmental, or condescending (hint: if you are often trying to point out to others the error or inadequacy of their beliefs, or “sell” them the gospel, then you are listening at level 2, and it’s condescending), then you may be using your beliefs to avoid encounters. You might be putting the cart before the horse.

If you are an atheist, then to the extent that your experiences with science and reason and the world give you a framework for understanding and creating meaning in your life, and your journey stretches and humbles and awes and challenges you, and you experience deeper and more profound love with each passing season, and care more about your fellow man out of your deepening sense of morality, then you are using your beliefs to make sense of your encounters.

If you are an atheist and your beliefs about science and reason reassure you that you are more intellectually evolved than those cretins still attending churches, and you wear the progress of science like a badge of “rightness” instead of letting science deepen and broaden your questions, then you may be using your beliefs to avoid reality.

It’s not an either-or proposition. We all live on a spectrum, and we all have some days that are better or worse than others, and some beliefs that we hold in a more fundie way than others. And as I grow, I am still working on excavating the remaining fundie thoughts and practices I still carry around with me. I’m sure it will take a lifetime.

Agh. This post took me weeks to write. And it’s only the first of a series. (I started in February.) Next up: Description vs. Meaning.

*** A note here to my more staunchly conservative Christian friends who are going to be very worried for my soul after reading that I think that only some people get to truth through religion, because isn’t Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Yes. Jesus has saved, and continues to save, my life in more ways than one, many times, in this life and presumably in eternity. And for me, atheism was a dishonest stance, because I had already experienced the Presence in childhood, and atheism was an intellectual prop to make me feel slightly less miserable about myself. However, I have some good friends who are ex-religious, and for them, religion was the intellectual prop – for them, walking away from religion really was walking away from a false god, something they had constructed themselves, or had received uncritically from people in power over them (like parents), and it is in atheism that they are getting closer to reality. And because I believe that God is the ultimate reality, anything that brings someone closer to reality brings them closer to God, whether we are calling it God or not, whether they describe it as an experience of an external presence or not. Jesus himself said that there would be some big surprises at the end of times about who was really following him and who wasn’t (see: the sheep and the goats). So while I am happy to unapologetically discuss with anyone my experiences of Jesus, my love for God, my faith, and the pulsing, furious Love that animates the universe, I don’t particularly believe that it’s up to me to judge up front anyone’s eternal status just because their beliefs about the world are radically different than mine. By all means, share the gospel, tell people how wonderful it is, because a lot of people need it (I did), just strive to be nonviolent about it, because a lot of other people have been deeply wounded by using the gospel as a weapon or a threat (I have).

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