Sunday, September 5, 2010

What's It All About?

I had a conversation this weekend that has left me reconsidering, yet again, what life is all about, what the universe is about, what life and death really are.  I wish, so often, that I could feel the certainty others do about these things.  Religious people and atheists alike all seem so sure of what they believe.  How can they?  How?  I fear that I never, ever will be certain.  I’ve been considering these questions since I was a small child and still I have no answers, only more questions.

I remember being around 7 or 8 years old and having a conversation with one of my many cousins.  At the time she absolutely believed in God.  She insisted that there was a God, and that this God saw over us, and had some control over our world and out lives.  I couldn’t understand her certainty.  I asked her why, if there was a God, and if this God was so powerful and knew right and wrong, how it could allow us to do things that it knew were wrong.  Wouldn’t a God who could make things right, choose to? Isn’t it just as bad to sit back and watch a wrong be done as it is to commit the error?  I had been to Sunday school, had read children’s versions of Bible stories, and it just confused me that people thought this God was so real and so wonderful when there it allowed so much pain and suffering and wrong doing to go on in the world.  I decided then that the Bible was just filled with interesting stories that weren’t real and that God was something people made up to explain the things they didn’t understand.

A few years later, this caused many arguments with my mother.  She was a lapsed Catholic.  I don’t ever remember seeing her enter a church other than for a wedding or funeral, but she still held onto the beliefs of her childhood.  For her God was an omnipotent father figure.  An old white man, with a long, white beard, sitting on his cloud throne up in the sky, watching over us all.  When I told her I thought this was all made up, she would cringe, would look impossibly sad that I could reject such a God.  And yet, all those questions I’d had when I was younger still persisted, and no one was answering them for me.  
I went to various services with friends and family, Went to Synagogues and churches of different Christian denominations and still, I saw and felt the same thing - that people believed because it helped explain things they didn’t understand and made them feel better about things that troubled them - but there was no real proof, no stable foundation for believing the things they did.

Around the same time, I was studying mythology in school and became fascinated with the Egyptian myths.  I loved the stories, the various Gods for different things.  I remember, though, that there was a condescending nature to the way it was taught.  The idea was look at how funny it is that these people believed the sun was pulled across the sky by a chariot, when now we have science to explain these things and know there is only one God and not many.  I was always troubled by this.  I kept thinking, how do you know these Gods don’t exist? How do you know that science won’t one day prove, or hasn’t already proven, that all the things you believe about this one God aren’t true?  

I think this was the start of me really questioning, because somewhere in the back of my mind, I started to see that it could be just as possible that there are many Gods as it was possible that there is one God, as it was also possible that there is no God at all.

A few years further down the line as a teenager I began to see connections between seemingly unrelated things. I began to wonder about things outside of our world.  About the universe about things unseen, yet felt, about how our senses sometimes connected us to other things.  I became fascinated by the power of the mind, about things like “extra sensory perception.”  I began to wonder if there was life on other planets, somewhere out beyond the stars.  I played with things like ouija boards and tarot cards.  I played games with friends to see if I could sense their thoughts. And mostly, I began to have dreams that came true.  

Popular culture created questions in my mind too.  I loved movies and there were messages mixed in amongst the comedy and adventure that made me think.  In “Oh God!” the movie starring John Denver and George Burns of all people, God appeared as a feisty old man and when John Denver’s character asked him why he looked like that, he told him that he appeared to people in the form they could best understand. I wondered then, if there was a God, could this account for the variations in religion?  Was it possible that God was too vast, too complex for the human mind to comprehend, so it dumbed itself down to simpler versions that people could take in?  

In “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second Star Wars movie, Yoda talked to Luke a lot about the energy that connects all living things, taught him how to tap into and be an active part of that energy.  Was it possible that energy was God?  That maybe we were all just energy that was intertwined and that mass collective was God.  That God wasn’t sentient or controlling or all knowing, but was merely the symmetry and interconnectedness of everything that exists?

When my first real adult crisis happened, and I looked for help, the aid most readily available came with a spiritual component attached.  My husband at the time had a problem with drugs and alcohol, so I turned to al-anon.  And there it was in those 12 Steps.  “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,”  “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  Those are steps 2 and 3 - I couldn’t get past them.  Believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity? Turn my will and my life over to God?  I wasn’t even sure I believed there was ANY power or ANY God.  How could I believe that this unseen, unknown, perhaps unknowable or non-existent thing could do any of that, could be any of that?

Other people in the meetings I went to, grasped hold of these steps happily, easily, and I wished, SO MUCh that I could be like them.  But I was caught up in a spiral of questions.  I felt trapped, needing so much to move forward and yet the tools I was given to do so were confusing me as much as helping me. 
I finally decided that if I could believe in other people, they could be the power greater than myself.  That collectively, all of us at those meetings were a power that could help restore each other to sanity.   As for turning my life over to God…that was harder.  I struggled with it for months.  In the end, I never fully believed.  I simply decided that if I could accept the possibility of God, that would have to be enough.  If I could consider the possibility of spirits and ghosts and aliens, then I supposed I could consider the possibility of God.  And if it was possible there was a God, then perhaps it was possible that God could have better control of my life than I did at that point.  For crying out loud, I could believe that a frog could take care of my life better than I had at that point.

So for the first time in my life, I opened myself to the possibility, the small chance that there was a God.  That at least some of the stuff in religion was true.

From that point on, I began trying to decide just what I thought God was.  Accepting the possibility of there being a God seemed to let me in on a club I felt that I’d been outside of my whole life.  So often, when the topic of religion came up and I revealed that I didn’t subscribe to any, people had asked, “So you don’t believe in God?” with such disdain and sadness in their voices that I felt immediately alienated from them.  There was a comfort in being able to say, “Yes, I believe in God, just maybe not in the same way that most religions present it.”

But that, in itself led to a new frustration.  As I developed and refined my belief in God, in something spiritual,  I found that I had a need, a desire, to share my growing beliefs with others.  With all the religious and spiritual groups in the world, wasn’t it possible that any of them matched what I felt to be true?  I began looking around, began examining various religions.  I went on Beliefnet and took a quiz to find out what spiritual ideals matched with my own.  I found the survey vague and inadequate, but it gave me direction to focus on.  Unitarian Universalist.

So one Sunday morning I bundled up the kids and enlisted my partner and we headed off to a building a mile from our apartment that I’d passed a thousand times and walked into the UU Church.  We were greeted warmly - almost too warmly for me.  Native New Yorker that I am, extreme or intense friendliness from strangers always makes me uncomfortable.

We sat through the service though and I was encouraged.  It was about community, about honoring people and their feelings and thoughts, about caring.  There was a way of looking at religion from a different perspective, of examining things in a slightly different way.  I felt like I could enjoy this, could gain something from it.  It was nice to be in a room full of people who had come together to share, to be there for one another.

We went back week after week for a few months, and while there was much I liked, I also began to see that the people there were as subject to prejudices and petty judgments as in any large group.  I was troubled that these attitudes could exist in a fellowship that was not only about spirituality, but about the acceptance of all kinds of spirituality.  We stopped going.  I missed it on some level, but on another, I realized that while I had enjoyed my time there, I hadn’t gotten closer to understanding my own beliefs about God about what I thought spirituality was all about.  I was still confused, still had more questions than answers.

One thing it did give me was a desire to examine existing religions a little more closely.   I also had the urge to do this because Sugar had begun asking about religion.  Friends had mentioned their beliefs to her and she had questions.  I had started teaching her some of the basics of other religions, but I wanted to know more, wanted to be able to answer her questions with more depth. Wanted better answers for myself as well.  It occurred to me that maybe if no one religion had THE answers maybe each of them had a grain of truth.  You know that saying about how to every story there’s three sides - yours, mine and the truth. I decided maybe I should start looking for the truth in different religions.

At the time a new recording of Bible had just come out.  Virtually every known Black actor in Hollywood had teamed up to record the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments.  I bought it and began to listen to it.  The stories were amazing, the acting impeccable, it brought the Book alive.  But I became impatient with the lack of answers.  The only grain of anything I got out of it came from something I felt was repeated over and over.  God kept insisting that people follow only Him.  That they place no other Gods before him.

Now, I had heard this before.  Had heard it in church, in watching movies like The Ten Commandments.  I had always assumed that this was to mean that there were no other Gods and that people shouldn’t put their faith in things that didn’t exist, but rather in this one God.  This went back to my elementary school studies of Egyptian mythology and the teacher who laughed at the idea that people had once believed in many Gods.  They didn’t exist, so it was ridiculous to waste time on them.  Wasn’t that what the God in the Bible was saying?

I wondered.  What if there were other Gods, lots of them.  Or what if there were no Gods, no omnipotent beings, but spirits who wanted or needed to be recognized and worshipped - who presented themselves as powerful and necessary to people.  What if this one spirit had decided it should be THE one and set about to make it so and had thus become the center of the world’s major religions?  What if the other Gods or spirits were out there still.  Wasn’t this a bit of what various forms of Paganism were about?  
I started to look a little at this and found that many Pagan beliefs were not bad or Satanic, as they had been portrayed, but were merely a recognition of nature, of synchronicity in the world, of the balance between people and the earth.

This made a little more sense to me.  But still, none of it…not even a little bit…seemed to ring absolutely true.  And so I’ve wandered as lost as I was in the beginning.  Wondering, questioning, but still finding no real answers that I could fully believe in.

Now, I haven’t delved into examining religions as much as I would like.  I wish I had the time to read more, to see more and experience more.  Certainly, my examination has, for the most part, been rather superficial.  I have a friend who has recently chosen to follow Islam and I soak up the information she has given me, but I haven’t really looked at it for myself.  That recording of the Bible still sits on a shelf, most of the Old Testament listened to, but more than half of the new Testament unheard.  I recognize that there’s SO much more I could do on my path to understanding my spirituality.

Then, a few days ago, the subject came up with a friend.  He had mentioned before that he believed in nothing.  I had wondered what that meant and when he said that he had gone to Catholic school, I  asked him about what he had believed then and how he had gone from believing to not.

He put forth the premise that there is no God, no afterlife, no spiritual component to humanity. That there is merely, imagination.  I shouldn’t really say merely, because as he presented it, imagination is huge, vast and a vital part of who we are as sentient beings.  He said that we are so capable of imagining so very much that doesn’t exist or can’t be seen that it is hard for us to believe that there isn’t even more beyond what we are capable of.  That we have created and brought into reality so much that couldn’t be seen that of course we would be inclined to believe that there’s even more.  That our brains have created the idea that there is more to us, that we go on beyond the scope of our bodies’ existence.

I have a hard time putting his ideas into my own words, but I get it.  I get that it’s possible that our brains create the concept of our souls and spirits.  That our brains see the patterns and balance in the world and create from that a higher power that makes these patterns come about.

I hesitated to offer him the words I have heard people utter so many times about how they realize there must be a God when they look at the shape of the world and the universe.  I hesitated to talk to him about my own growing awareness about how there does seem to be a connectedness to all things - about how just thinking or talking about things seem to often make them happen.

I hesitated because I realized, from his point of view, our brains did this.  That our ability to think and imagine and create things from these thoughts, was really the God we attributed so much to.  And on some level I couldn’t argue with that.  I told him simply that I had to think about what he had said.  That something in it made sense to me, and I had to think.

That’s what I’ve done for three days…think about it.  As usual, I still have questions, still don’t know what the answers are.  There’s something to what he says, but it makes me uncomfortable..  I think, always, always, despite my questions about God and about religion, I have always had the sense that there was more.  That there was something beyond this life, this reality. I mentioned in a previous post that as a very young child I had a memory of coming to this life from someplace I didn’t want to leave.  I think I have spent my whole life waiting to return there.  To knowing what that place, that reality is. To allow myself to fully believe what he says is to relinquish that very comforting idea that this life is merely a stop along the way.

That idea saddens and frightens me.  So much of this life has been unfulfilling and painful.  Am I to believe that this is all there is? That there will never be another chance to have fulfillment, happiness.  That I’m never going to get the chance to get it right?

I don’t like that idea.  And yet, again, if it is true, and I choose to believe it, what an amazing incentive it gives me to not waste another moment of this life.  How motivated would I be to really get out and live and make the rest of this life all it can possibly be?  How much more of a push would it be to take care of this body I have because it really is all I have, all I will ever have and when it’s gone, I will be too.

Ah, I don’t know.  More questions.  More to wonder about. More to consider.  And so little time to consider in if there is only this life left to do it in.

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