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!