Finding the Spirit

Spirituality.  That’s what I want to begin with. Well, to be completely honest, I have cheated and have begun to focus on two topics concurrently, the first being spirituality, and the second being eating meat or animal by-products, but for the sake of staying on one topic at a time (for this post, at least), I will focus on spirituality.  I know I’m starting out with a highly personal issue, so I’d like to emphasize that my end goal is not to come up with the right answer, but to come up with the right answer FOR ME AND MY FAMILY.  Even if I accomplish that, it will be a living, dynamic solution that changes as I grow and change (I hope).

As I mentioned before, my first task for any given topic is to hash out what my current thoughts are and how I came to feel the way that I do.  So, as far as spirituality goes, when people ask me what I believe, I provide the vague classification of “spiritual but not religious”.  I know this probably sounds like a cop-out, but I prefer it over saying that I am agnostic, because I feel like saying I am agnostic implies a willingness to believe in a higher power but no current relationship with one.  I do have a relationship with a higher power; it is not consistent nor do I completely understand it or even try to define it.  It just is, and when I am tending to it, it provides me with nourishment and serenity, and when I am not tending to it, I generally feel like I am drifting afloat and alone in the world.

As with many people, my thoughts on spirituality come from a mish-mash of personal experiences, life lessons, and outside influences.  I did not grow up in a particularly religious household; my father was Lutheran (but not really practicing; he claimed he did not need a church to worship), and my mother was Catholic (and only intermittently practicing).  My earliest religious education consisted of saying my bedtime prayers (in German and English, since my mother was German) and not much else.  My dad was in the Army, and I think this may have had a hand in why my mother did not start dragging me to Catholic Mass until I was a bit older (maybe six or seven?)  We moved a few times early on, and I don’t really remember going to church much until we settled in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

I wish I could say I vividly recall my earliest church memories, but they all kind of blend together for me.  I vaguely remember participating in my first Communion after attending a Sunday school class for a while, but I recall what I was wearing better than the actual event.  I didn’t have a white dress, so my mother had paired a hastily purchased white shirt with pearl-colored beads all over the front with a white pleated skirt. Amazing the things we remember…

We did not attend Mass every Sunday and we did some church-hopping.  My favorite (and my mother’s favorite) church was in Bisbee, about 45 minutes away, where Father James, an affable Irish priest, gave uplifting and humorous sermons.  Once Father James left, we stopped going to Bisbee.  Around that time I was old enough for Confirmation, which was when my mother said I could choose whether I wanted to commit to being a Catholic or not.  I felt zero loyalty to Catholicism and was relieved to have a way out.  It was a no-brainer for me.

In school, I occasionally ran across some devoutly religious families, which mostly just fostered the beginnings of a deep-seated dislike for religion.  One of my earliest memories of feeling distanced from religion is from 4th grade, when my best friend’s Baptist parents insisted that unicorns were of the Devil but would not explain why.  I was really into unicorns at the time (I was 11….of course I was into unicorns!), and I was very disappointed to hear my beloved unicorns being bashed, not to mention defensive of the unicorn posters hanging in my bedroom.  My best friend was irritated by my attitude but seemed to be at a loss to explain her parents’ stance.  I pointed out that in the last book of the Narnia chronicles, which we were both huge fans of and which she claimed was really about God (God being the lion Aslan in the series), there was a unicorn and he was on the good side.  It was like arguing with a brick wall; all I got was the sense that I was bad and wrong and shouldn’t ask questions.

I had a few more experiences similar to this.  By the time I was 16, I wanted nothing to do with religion—more accurately, by then, I wanted nothing to do with anything that other people told me I should do or believe.  I had blossomed from a quiet, meek, nerdy kid into a full-blown hellion.  The story of the aimless rebellion of my late teen years goes well outside the scope of this blog; the important take-away from that time in my life is that this attitude towards religion would persist well through my early adulthood and still has an effect on how I look at religion and spirituality today.

I am an alcoholic.  The story of that is also outside of the scope of this blog (for now, anyways); the important take-away from my alcoholism is that I got sober through a twelve step program which necessitated that I develop some kind of relationship with a higher power.  In order to do that, I had to at least superficially evaluate what I didn’t like or accept about what I thought God was as well as whether there was a version of God that I could like and accept.  I had to sort of quarantine my negative spiritual experiences and look through my life to find inklings of positive ones.  This was actually surprisingly easy to do, since my vehement dislike of religion had kind of mellowed over the years (I was in my early thirties by then).

Exposure to many influences, people, and places had convinced me to reframe my feelings towards religion from hostility to a sort of wary tolerance.  I still did not want to label myself as belonging to a religion, but I became okay with playing audience to certain religious attitudes.  I had read several spiritual books that felt like truth to me.  Richard Bach’s One and Illusions were like personal Bibles to me (I actually compulsively, almost evangelically, would loan out the book One to people, complete with my highlights, but I would never get the copy back, so I would have to re-buy another copy and re-highlight that, only to “loan” it out again… I probably did that more than ten times).  Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior series resonated with me, as well as Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins.   Also, being in the military for many years, I fortunately met some devoutly religious but very down-to-earth, funny, and tolerant people who did not make me want to run screaming in the other direction when they talked about their beliefs.

By the time I had to formulate my own idea of God, I already had a pretty good list of characteristics that I thought it/he/she would possess.  And, interestingly enough, once I ditched the ideas of God that were repulsive to me and adopted the ones that were attractive, I actually wanted to have a relationship with it/him/her.  I use the term God loosely here; I used to be averse to even using the name “God” because of the traditional images it conjures.  However, I find that it’s much easier to say “God” than try to invent a label less loaded with preconceived notions when conversing about spirituality (although I did go through a period where I tried out all kinds of different names to pray to, i.e. Divine Creator, Divine Force, Master Intelligence, the Great Good, Mother Earth).  Anyhow, thus ended my refusal to pray or meditate and the beginnings of a real relationship with a higher power.  I could no longer deny that a higher power was at work in my life, because it totally worked.  Prayer and meditation WORKED.  Not in a way that I could scientifically quantify and show to you, but in a way that gave peace and direction to my life that wasn’t there before.

So, why is spirituality still an issue for me?  Well, first of all, as I said, I am not consistent in my relationship with a higher power.  I feel that it is vital to show my daughter that spirituality is an important part of life, but it’s hard to do that if I am not consistent with it.  Also, how do I teach spirituality to a child in terms that are as vague as the ones I have chosen to define it?  I don’t care if she ultimately decides to be Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Pagan, or even an atheist, as long as she has the exposure, the education, and the spiritual guidance to listen to her own moral compass and make an informed and heartfelt decision.

Me, I believe that there are many paths to truth and none have to be mutually exclusive.  I think that the idea that there are winners and losers in spirituality (i.e. heaven and hell) is a uniquely human idea—mankind has a hard time imagining a world in which everyone can be right and everyone can be happy.  If one person is right, someone else has to be wrong.  I say that’s baloney.  I have learned to respect religion for what I believe it is, which is a tool to get people closer to their idea of God (or whatever you choose to call it/him/her).  What gets YOU closer to your higher power may be toxic for ME, or vice versa, but that’s ok, because we can each choose the path that works for us individually.  I think that none of us can really be certain of anything in the spiritual realm except for what our inner compass is telling us, and if my inner compass is telling me something different than yours is telling you, it doesn’t necessarily mean one of us is wrong, just that how I interpret the truth might be different than how you would.

I’m not really sure that I need to go out and commit to a religion to be effective in teaching my daughter what I want her to learn;  maybe I should take her church-hopping, or maybe I should just try to expose her to different ideas through books and media.  What I do know is that I feel like I am not in the best place to make a decision on a course of action.  I have not exposed myself to enough belief systems, I have not asked enough questions, and I have not kept up with my own practices and standards.  I’ve never even read the Bible, and that in and of itself seems like a pretty daunting task to undertake without a guide.

Truth be told, I’m fairly certain that if I am seeking spiritual truth in the right way, I will never run out of questions and may even become more unsteady on my spiritual path.  But I don’t want to tell my daughter that she has to explore and seek truth and follow her own heart if I haven’t done a thorough job of it myself; no one wants to listen to a hypocrite!

I don’t have a game plan, but I do have books, religious friends, lots of churches/synagogues/temples in the city I live in, and a pretty darn good reason to get out there and start learning, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.   I have a few leads already, so we’ll see where they take me…I’ll let you know after I get there!

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The Beginning

I don’t know where to start.  I guess I should start off by explaining why I want to start a blog.  My reasons are largely selfish.  I am a fairly new stay-at-home mom, and I need something adult to do in between peek-a-boos and itsy bitsy spiders.  Also, I have a daughter now.  There are many things I want to teach her, but mostly I feel a strong need to be a positive role model in her life.  I have not always been the most motivated person.  Sure, my prior workmates will all tell you I have a good work ethic and try to do a quality job when something needs to be done.   But I also never had a problem with playing video games all weekend.  I might feel a little guilty, sure, but not guilty enough to do something different.

Now, I feel a sudden urgency to do the things I have always wanted to but never got around to.  Not that I don’t want to have fun, oh no…. I want to make sure that little girl of mine knows how to enjoy life and live a life of balance.  But I also want her to know that it is important to pursue one’s ideals.  It is not enough to look at the world around you and be able to point at all of the things you don’t like about it; I truly believe that in order to engage in life, to experience life fully, and to be most at peace with yourself, you have to try to live life as you would want life to be.

If I am going to teach her the things I want her to learn, I am going to have to walk the walk before I talk the talk.  I am starting this blog to address the dissonance I often feel between my thoughts and my actions.  I like to think that I am a rational, forward-thinking individual and yet I often feel like a spectator in the world rather than a participant.   I form strong opinions about things but sometimes wonder how educated my opinions really are.  Also these strong opinions often do not match up with the way I live my life nor do I often take action to affect change in areas where I might be able to have an influence.

There are probably several reasons for this.  First, I am busy living my life; I have been and still am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a friend, a student, a career-woman, a recovering alcoholic, a poet, a music-lover, a pet-owner, a housekeeper, a runner….. I could go on and on but you probably get the point, and you probably empathize.  Many of us are trying to be a little bit of everything these days.  Some are a little bit of everything and still manage to be movers and shakers in the world.  Perhaps they are not as lazy as I am… who knows?  The point is that it is difficult to know where to throw in time and effort when you are already being pulled in so many directions at once.  I suspect (although I can’t be sure) that this is why many people feel strongly about certain things but never seem to DO anything about it.  We are all hoping some kind of full-time activist will swoop in and take care of that for us, because we certainly don’t have time.

That piece about it being difficult to know where to throw in support is another part of the problem.  There are SO many issues that I feel strongly about, want to learn more about, and want to do something about, that I often throw up my hands and think “where on earth would I start?”  Choosing my battles has never been my strong suit, and in this context it is paralyzing.  In psychology, there is a study-supported phenomenon in which having more choices is NOT a good thing.  For instance, having the option to choose among five flavors of ice cream generally makes people happier than only having one.  So more is better, right?  Wrong… there is a point of diminishing returns at which more options make people less happy.  Fifty flavors of ice cream can be completely paralyzing.  How on earth is someone supposed to choose from that many?  If a person does settle on one, it is likely that they will second guess themselves and feel buyer’s remorse, thinking how much better it might have been if they chose something else.

Lastly, there is a sense of impotence in the face of the problems of the world.  Everyone has a critical voice in their head; mine can be absolutely ruthless sometimes.  It is constantly telling me why I should not pursue anything worthwhile.  What could I possibly do to make anything better?  I am small and insignificant.  My efforts will be futile.  I have no original thoughts.  People will LAUGH at me.

I have now outlined all the reasons (excuses) why I don’t act more in a manner that is in line with my beliefs and morals.   I want to go beyond critical thinking and go into critical decision-making and critical acting.  My goal within this blog is to inform my beliefs and outline all the ways I CAN act more in a manner that is in line with these beliefs.  That is the purpose of this blog.  Remember the fifty flavors of ice cream?  My intention is to go down the line and consider each of the flavors, as it were.  The nice thing about this is that I will probably never run out of things to write about and if I need to stay on one topic longer than the others I can do that.

There is a sort of format I wish to follow:

  • First, I will introduce the topic that I am struggling with and state my current thoughts/beliefs on the matter and how I came to those conclusions. I will also explain what I do or (more likely) do not do to support these thoughts/beliefs.
  • After that, I will research the topic to answer my own questions regarding how I really feel about it and how to act based on my beliefs. For example, how easy would it be to be proactive about supporting that belief?  What are small things I could do in my day-to-day life to support that belief?  After weighing the options, is this a belief that I feel I can put my energy into or is the cost to high… or is it not worth enough to me?
    • Most importantly, is this a belief that I want to continue to have? I am not closed to the idea that in researching a specific topic I may find that I change my mind about it…. I am certainly not an expert in all things.  I think it is very sad that in our society we so often see changing one’s mind as a sign of weakness.  I get that we want our leaders to be solid, to be unwavering in their beliefs.  However, it is incredibly foolish to throw out new information just because it doesn’t match one’s current beliefs.  I hope I can avoid making that mistake.
  • Finally, I will present and commit t a plan of action (or a plan not to take action) to support my beliefs.

It sounds terribly boring when I lay it out that way.  My husband would probably say at this point that I am being a control freak about my blog. So be it.  I need to be a control freak in the planning stages to be ok with moving forward.  I can assure you, I am not such a control freak in many other areas of my life, as you will soon find out.  I am fully prepared to break format or go off on a tangent if I feel it is necessary to get closer to achieving my goal of belief/action congruence.

I have to throw in a warning here, I was a psychology (and criminology) major when I recently finished my Bachelor’s Degree, and was simultaneously impressed and depressed by what I learned about the inner workings of the human mind; for this reason, you will see a lot of references to psychology peppered throughout this blog.  I do not claim to be an expert on the subject matter, but I am certain some things that I internalized in that course of study will be highly relevant to the topics I plan to discuss.

Before I begin, I’d like to pre-emptively thank anyone who is considering accompanying me on my journey; you will keep me honest!  And so, here we go…..