Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bridge sales skyrocket this time of year.

Hudson, something you need to know about me is that while I respect the hell out of other people's religious beliefs, faith, superstition, or what have you, I personally don't buy into any organized religion, most notably anything that recognizes any concrete "god." In fact, the last...erm...lifetime, I guess...has made me excruciatingly skeptical, to a point where I am profoundly comfortable calling myself an atheist. When I feel like it's being imposed or really stuck under my nose, religious belief makes me pretty angry sometimes, to a degree where I often forget the value it holds for the people practicing it.

I almost hesitate to write this for several reasons. First, I know many people in your world are sustained by their faith, believe that god/Jesus/whoever provides some positive influence or support in their lives, or see religion (formally organized or otherwise) as a meaningful facet of themselves. I know I've upset people in the past with my refusal to embrace some element of faith, but there's no getting around the degree to which I just don't buy it. Second, of those faith-sustained people, many of them are contributing to your care by praying or sharing your name in community prayer circles. I don't know the correct names for these things; while sending thoughts to a family member makes some sense, the idea of praying for some kid multiple states away who you've never met just because someone who is a member of an affiliate church to your own happens to have heard of them seems so bizarre to me. I don't want anyone to think I begrudge or don't fully appreciate the efforts they are putting forth, especially when there is little else that can be done to help.

Lastly, and perhaps most prominently, there is a part of me that wishes desperately for you to have the comfort and security of faith. This is something I have never had. I was raised with a somewhat vague understanding of what religion even was, and the notion of faith - most notably the idea that there could be some higher power that influences my life in any way - was just not present at all. I always thought it was really weird when my friends forewent playdates in order to go to church on Sundays, or when a sleepover wasn't possible because of Friday Shabbat services; couldn't they just choose to do something play with me? Still, those friends always had a sense of being cared for by both a community at large as well as a loving deity. Challenges - even tragedies - had some kind of reason, and triumphs - even personal achievements - were enriched by something greater. What a beautiful idea.

It's just never worked for me. Conceptually, organized religion has always struck me as kind of weird. Can enough people truly believe in the same thing to justify a complex organizational system that can span continents, buildings with expensive upkeep and logistics, and frequently entire educational protocols to indoctrinate community youth? Clearly the answer is yes, but in a world where my closest circle of friends still choose their own unique dishes when ordering Chinese food together, it seems improbable. Even in the context of the reform Jewish synagogues where I've had the bulk of my organized religious experiences, I couldn't buy in to the unison chanting and rapt attention to recited scripture. It often felt like everyone attended secret practice sessions that were scheduled behind my back. ("Okay, everyone, on three, we all chuckle appreciatively at the Rabbi's pun. One...two...kvell!")

Frustration was part of my hesitation, but fear became a big piece, too. When some of my cousins were baptized, I remember being terrified of the icons and sculptures in the church; seriously, a miserable-looking, blood-covered dude with a spear sticking out of him and thorns smashed into his forehead? That was TERRIFYING. Can a totally oblivious five-year-old handle over an hour of hearing about the potential flames of hell that engulf the non-baptized? I'm going to have to say no. I spent half of one service hiding in a corner crying chapel, and had to be rescued by my (once-Christian, and therefore credible) mother who explained that Jesus wasn't going to do anything bad to me. I never really bought it, and still get kind of woogly in even the most plain, contemporary churches.

My family's assorted synagogues have generally been beautiful, approachable spaces, but I don't think I'll ever get over the assumption that I jumped to when I was just old enough to read. I noticed the tiny plaques that are plastered all over most religious buildings identifying donors or the people in whose honor a bench, piece of art, chair, or other structure had been donated. In my fairly jumpy six year old mind, these were grave markers identifying where the cremated and sometimes impossibly compacted remains of the person whose name was listed were being stored. I thought that the tiny metal plaque on the sanctuary seat concealed Erma Steinblatt (grandmother to Abby, David, and Robert), and that the wall covered with the names of synagogue supported was actually a tiny mausoleum where silver level donor Simeon Goldfarb III and his wife Muriel Rosen Goldfarb (among dozens of others) were interred. Suffice to say, even the cheeriest of Hanukkah services scared the hell out of me for years.

Still, it hasn't always been bad. There was a brief period of time in my early teens when I was totally cool with the idea of being Jewish - like, a legit Jew who went to Shabbat services or at least lit candles and said prayers at dinner, and who was part of the temple youth group, and who was going through confirmation, and who could at least read a teensy, weensy bit of Hebrew. My parents chose to take the family in the direction of actually being Jewish before my Dad's first kidney transplant (rather than embracing my mother's Presbyterian roots), and for a while, I was happy to go along with them. The community was really nice, for me and for my parents, and while I was deeply suspicious of this so-called god everyone kept going on about, I liked the discourse about spiritual matters, and all the singing. A major turning point came when I started to try to go through the confirmation process and was told by a relatively unexperienced rabbi that I "wasn't Jewish enough." Imagine someone has been trying to convince you to get a tattoo for years, and you finally work up the guts to do it (even though you still have serious reservations, and don't even know what you want to get)...only to have the tattoo artist tell you that your skin is too dark or light or something arbitrary like that. Do you really bother to try again - perhaps at a different shop, or even just on a different day - or do you say "screw it, clearly this isn't meant to be,"? Yeah...we know where that went. (On an unrelated note, I now have nine tattoos.)

Since that point, my wariness of organized religion escalated. I developed a strong bond with some of my closest friends in college over mutual beliefs in earth-based spirituality, and found comfort and joy in that for some time. After college, though, I feel like shit got real. My ability to look at genuinely nasty events in my life (my Dad's ongoing illness, my relationship woes, my Mom's instability at times, my Papa's relatively sudden death, money being impossible to manage, jobs being miserable and miserable to find, etc...) and think that they were either part of some plan or ultimately balanced by beauty in the world weakened. It wasn't even that bad started outweighing good; I just stopped being able to see any order or reason in the grand scheme of things.

One night a few years ago, I was sitting on the couch with your Dad, and the reality of my complete lack of faith hit me like a sack of bricks. I knew - absolutely, unswervingly, and with brutal depth - that I don't believe in any semblance of god. If there is some higher power, I don't buy it. This was a crushing realization, especially since it was such a complete paradigm shift; once that semblance of faith was gone, the hole where it used to reside closed up, seemingly permanently. I still completely respect people who do (I often envy them) but I can't bring myself to believe. When we got pregnant with you, I had a momentary flicker of wondering whether some beautiful form of the divine had contributed to your existence, but then I remembered where babies come from: sperm and eggs. Biology. You came from your Dad and me, and biology was what was making you grow. When we found out that something was wrong with your heart, a lack of self or divinity to blame actually made the news easier to swallow. Once again, this was biology at work, but this time science was being a heartless, defiant bitch rather than a dutiful construction worker.

 I work and live in an environment that is predominantly free of religion (public schools really don't like you to openly discuss or, y'know, teach about spiritual beliefs unless it's in a historical or analytical context, and even then eggshells must be trod upon), plus we live in an apartment that doesn't have an easily Jehovah's Witness-accessible door, so I'm entirely unused to having religious language directed at me. Since you were born, and specifically since you had your episode last week that landed us in Boston with even the possibility of transplant, my internet presence has been bombarded with promises of prayer, hopes for divine intervention, assurances that entire congregations (some local, some distant, many populated by people who have only heard of you) are praying for your recovery. I appreciate this profoundly, regardless of the flavor attached to the sentiment, but boy does it feel odd to me.

My cousin stopped in to our place visit with her family a few weekends ago, and in the course of discussing choices one makes about parenting, she brought up a fascinating point about god. Her son was being raised to keep kosher and to believe in god because (as she said) you can always change your mind about traditions and belief later in life, but if you're raised with skepticism as your starting point, it's almost impossible to adopt faith. Hudson, what the heck can I do with you? Part of why I just can't bring myself to buy into the notion of god is the hell we've gone through (you, me, your Dad, and our communities at large) because of a few errant cells choosing to phone it in for one key developmental moment. I don't blame or look to any higher power for explanation or resolution, but I feel like I'm going to have to be excruciatingly careful to leave the window of possibility open for you. Faith is one of humanity's greatest securities, and just because I've never had it doesn't mean you shouldn't.

1 comment:

  1. I'm starting to believe that it's important to foster at least a sense of openness in kids when it comes to religion/spirituality, even if you don't raise them with a specific belief system. Jack was raised in an atheist, skeptical, scientific household, and now he is completely closed down to even the idea of having a spiritual experience of any sort. It certainly makes it hard to relate to him about spirituality, because my faith is so important to me.