Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Maybe I Really Should Become a Buddhist


I have decided that spending some time reconsidering my meta assumptions about the universe would be well spent. No, this is not an invitation for creepy evangelical Christian fanatics to start stuffing my mailbox with informational literature.

Rather, I was really saddened by the death of Marc at Voyeur Nation. Many other bloggers knew him well. I, though, had not really encountered his blog until a few days ago. From what I saw of him, he sure seemed like a kind, funny, well-meaning guy. In his memory, he asked that readers make a donation to their local cancer society. His loss at such a young age strikes me as, well, unfair.



Here is the deal: even though every four-year-old learns that life isn’t fair, I still, deep in my subconscious, refuse to let go of the idea of cosmic fairness. This perhaps explains why I am so often disappointed.

Marc's death also made me think that my own minor troubles of trying to dump a house and getting over a liar ex (who told many lies) are both extremely common issues and also shamefully petty. Then I felt like a shit for making his death all about me.

Well, since I have started down the road of Drama-Queeness, I might as well complete the journey. We all seem to struggle with how to deal with the difficult things in our life. Sure, there are people who have trouble grappling with the happy things in their life as well, but usually that’s just because the rest of their life has sucked so bad that they aren’t used to good things.

I consider myself a quasi-spiritual person, but not particularly religious. Things and forces exist in the cosmos, it seems likely to me, that humans simply can’t comprehend. As a result, humans have come up with all sorts of different ideologies to organize and make sense of what surrounds them. Religion and science are just two different means of accomplishing that same goal. Neither has my absolute faith. I tend to be suspicious of anybody who thinks that they have all knowledge figured out (Christian, Jewish, atheist, or whatever). It also matters little to me what other people believe.

How we come to think about our position in the world strikes me as an intensely personal thing. As a result, I try to respect people and their belief systems and expect the same in return.

As we have discussed before, though, Christianity’s current manifestations, particularly in the United States, leaves me astounded. Time and again, I saw students at my Texas university praying for an “A” on an exam; or praying to do well at an athletic event; or praying to see that their closets miraculously organize themselves. The parting of the Red Sea would pale in comparision to waking up and finding their wardrobe sorted in R.O.Y.G.B.I.V. order. That level of hubris left my jaw swinging.

Under this theology, their god didn’t care about starvation, war, poverty, and death in the world. Rather, he filled his days by ensuring that they did well on their intro history exams. “Really?” I would think quietly to myself, “God takes such an interest in you that he micro-manages your life like that? Really? ‘Cause I just read your history exam and God doesn’t like you nearly as much as you think. Either that or Jesus needs to brush up a bit on FDR’s Court Packing Bill himself. Those answers he slipped you were totally whack.”

Maybe I just respond like that because of my own childhood indoctrination. The Catholic god of my youth promised to bring as much suffering (if not more) to your life as happiness. Catholic god always wanted to test you to the breaking point. He was a regular SAT quizmaster, that Catholic God. Complaining about it only meant that he would just bring even more unhappiness to your life. Like most patriarchs, Catholic god always seemed to respond to complaints by saying, "Stop crying or I will really give you something to cry about." Catholic god was a mean son-of-a-bitch. My extended family, in particular, had (has) a dour view of the day-to-day because of this belief system. They firmly believed that “work makes life sweet.”

Trying to figure out how to have perspective about our personal problems verses the pain felt by others seems like one of the main struggles that we all face. On one level, most people who live in the U.S. have a much greater standard of living than many, many, many people in other parts of the world. We can all agree, for instance, that losing an arm in a bloody civil war is worse and more painful than having your heartbroken in U.S. suburbia. Still, if we create that as a standard where we can only feel pain if we lost an arm, than I think we are also setting ourselves up for some serious problems.

Whether we believe that larger forces exist or not, part of our goal in life should be to learn and appreciate the greater varieties of pain that exist in the world. Learning to empathize with our individual biographies, it seems to me, would go a long way in improving how we relate to each other.

20 comments:

pacalaga said...

It's that same idea that makes me unable to wish harm on others, even ones considered worse than evil in the world. (Of course, I recognize that my benevolent attitude comes from the luxury of never really being hurt by anyone in a terrible way, but still.)
I saw a bumper sticker once that said, "I wish for you ten times what you wish for me." I try to remember that when I'm cussing someone out in traffic...

pacalaga said...

Oops, it should have read "benevolent attitude", so as to read a little less, um, pompous as it currently does!

WayOut said...

I’ll temper my emotions for a serious occasion, but I’ll choose science over religion any day of the week. Science may not have all the answers yet, but at least possesses the ability to progress, while the tenets of religions, cast in stone, are unable to change.

My irritation with prayer is its lack of ownership. Praying shirks off the work of what needs to be done on to someone or something else. If prayers thus far have gone unheard to end war, starvation, and disease, then the answer to them must be, whether any god exists or not, we’d damn well better get off our asses and tackle those problems ourselves.

Doug said...

This post is why people keep coming back here. So thought-provoking that I'll spend the next week figuring out how I feel, and even then I'll realize I still don't know.

I also found Marc's blog only recently. The day of his death, in fact. I didn't know him, but from reading his brother's, ex-boyfriend's, and friends' blog entries, I literally cried knowing Marc was gone. I wanted to post something on my own blog about it, but I felt like I didn't have a right to do so. Your post is a wonderful tribute to his memory.

I try to respect the beliefs of others, but too often I encounter others whose beliefs espouse their right to dictate my beliefs.

I often wonder, as I see a baseball player thank god as they cross home plate for their home run, why god would give two shits about a home run. In my [ever-changing] opinion, when people claim that their faith in their god helped them achieve something, it was their faith in themselves that really did the job. They just didn't know it.

Christopher said...

This is really going to annoy some people, and I'm deeply sorry for that, but I have to say it...

at least 90% of the people who say they are not religious but spiritual seem to be agnostics who don't want to think of themselves as soulless heathens. Few of them ever give thought to spiritual matters unless probed about them (as GayProf has done for us today). Even among us secular humanist liberal elites, there is a stigma to calling yourself an atheist or agnostic. We'd much rather say we are spiritual, and thus not crazy fundamentalists but not bad people either. Sometimes I believe someone when they say they are spiritual. Most of the time I just think, "Oh yeah, you, Tom Cruise, and Madonna...the spiritual gurus of our time."

Earl Cootie said...

The Religion classes I took (so so so so long ago) impressed me with the fact that most religions start with the same notion: Be a good person.

But then history happens, and people intervene and interpret and clusterfuck that notion to hell.

Science fiction writer Sherri Tepper plays with that in her Grass/Raising the Stones/Sideshow (loose) trilogy when a time/space traveler (later deemed a prophetess) appears to a people on some planet and gives a speech on how to fight off evil influences culminating with the command "Above all, don't let them fuck with your heads." Later adherents of the prophetess's words decide that this means that they shouldn't cut their hair (though they shave their beards, because they determine that by "heads" she just meant the upper portion).

And what were you talking about?

Well, no matter. As for me, I don't consider myself religious, and though my friends describe me as spiritual, I eschew the label for its religious connotations. But I believe in the Golden Rule (without the ten-times addendum, though that's not a bad idea). And try my best to live by it.

marlan said...

Great post, as usual. Just a couple of thoughts. Coming from a different Christian tradition, and having abandoned that, I agree with the false notion that prayer affects the minutiae of our daily lives. I recall a naive high school bandmate who was hard of hearing and claimed that she would be healed if only she could pray hard enough. As they say, the band played on, but she couldn't hear it.

Keep it up, Prof Center.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I myself believe in cosmic justice; I have yet to see that actually work with humans - with other animals, yes, mean nasty animals often get overturned and put in their place - with humans they tend to be put in charge of lots of humans and praised for the extent of thier callousness. Alas.

As for micro-management prayer - I don't really see the point of having an all powerful, all knowing God if they can't handle handle the level of compassion or interest in my personal life to at least the level of a good friend - if they only want humans as drones in the giant chess game - didn't the greeks and Romans already have that?

Signalite said...

This isn't drama-queeny at all.

I was rather confused when I saw Marc's passing. I too had not seen his blog until a few days ago when people started posting about his death. I had this longing to find out much more and as the reality set in what it was all about my compassion took over and I had a longing to do more somehow.

You mentioned about how a four year old takes things and I myself try to take these things from the perspective a child. How would someone who is dealing with the basics of life deal with it.

Thanks for reminding me of my own perspective.

jeremy said...

I had an English class with this toally annoying cun--bitch who brought her Bible every day. No matter what book or story we were reading, she had to correlate it to the damn Bible. So, one day, I brought a People magazine to class and every time she made a correlation to the Bible, I made a correlation to People magazine.
Teach that bitch to pray for an A!

Anonymous said...

I think that real compassion and empathy can only happen when we understand that there is truth outside of what we believe and what we have been told by others to believe. When we release the fears and prejudices we have been fed on, the reality of what others feel and experience touches us. Being gentle and understanding with yourself is the first step.

Cooper

Laura Elizabeth said...

Though organized religion leaves me cold, I think each of the faiths has a nugget of truth - a bit of real wisdom - hidden within. It's when human beings try to define, codify, god, that's when all hell breaks loose.

The Golden Rule is a good place to start for me as well. I usually add to it, from Shakespeare's Hamlet:

"This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."


Thanks for the great post and for making me think.

Michael said...

As a self-proclaimed, formerly evangelical, gay, liberal Christian, I am constantly spouting off about the right-wing of the religion. In fact, modern Christianity in its most well known forms - the evangelicals, the Faldwells, Hagees, Benny Hinns, Dobsons, the mega-churches, those preservers of family values, those students praying for an "A" (and oh yes I know who you're talking about) - has nothing to do with what I consider to be true Christianity. It's all about superiority to others, an "in club" (and often a country club), and some kind of weird self-help, Oprah-like bullshit.

If you are spouting hate - if you are working actively to deny other citizens equal rights and protections - you aren't a Christian. Sure, you can disagree whether it's sinful or not (it's not) but trying to keep people from being able to live a life with the basic protections that you do is evil. If you aren't serving others, you aren't a Christian. If you aren't turning the cheek and instead lashing out at people - you aren't Christian.

Rebekah said...

"Whether we believe that larger forces exist or not, part of our goal in life should be to learn and appreciate the greater varieties of pain that exist in the world. Learning to empathize with our individual biographies, it seems to me, would go a long way in improving how we relate to each other."

Ooo.. you got me today with this last paragraph. It speaks to all of the comparing we do... even in the comments, someone calls someone a "cun-bictch" for bringing her bible to class.

We have such difficulty communicating with one another; even with those we love... it's a wonder we aren't all just smashing each other over the heads at all times.

Appreciation of something, understanding, doesn't imply agreement or approval. The way you put it, "emphasizing with our own individual biographies" I'm going to chew on that for a while.

Dawn Of The Dad said...

As a regular reader of your blog it is so good to read such a pensive post. As much as I love your wit, flair and skill with words; not knowing you personally, I don't know how barbed the humour is behind your opinions. (Babies & Marriage especially! ;) )

I too think that there is a natural or cosmic justice. Kind of like the artificial horizon in aeroplanes. Things will "right" themselves, level out.

Sadly though, and my failing is, that this sense needs such a large view on history that I struggle to keep the right perspective.

Your comparison between a suburban heartbreak and a lost arm was also interesting. Can we compare the two and say one pain is greater?

As awful as this sounds to the guy who lost his arm, I don't know if we can. Pain is subjective, and we have all had a piece of it, so we know, that when you're feeling it you can't have someone tell you it is not real, or important.

The pain of a billionaire losing his investments is just as strong and important as the amputee. It might not feel like it to us, looking from the outside. But to the billionaire it is.

Then comes the question, who is anyone here to say "Your pain is not strong enough, or at least, not a s strong as anothers"?

Hmmm. Something to think about -

Long rambling post, bleary-eyed and pre-coffee. Apologies all.

:)

Dawn Of The Dad said...

*edit*

All your posts are pensive and good. That's why I come back, I meant this is pensive in a different way. Oh - whatever...

You know what I mean. Right?

*delete* !

tornwordo said...

Great post prof. I tend to discount all "spiritual" information delivered by others. Until I try it for myself. Some of the things on the Red Road really seem to work for me, but I would never for a second suggest that I have it all figured out.

Except.

I did stumble onto the secret of life. I have to keep it a secret though.

Lorraine said...

I always feel a little weird when I tell someone about some stress or trial in my life, knowing that all over the place are people with "real" pain. But pain is pain and generally speaking, a little compassion goes a long way.

Gay Erasmus said...

Well, as you know, I'm Christian. But I'll be the first to admit that many Christians have become horribly confused about spirituality.

Imo, spirituality is whatever gets you out of bed in the morning, whatever it is that you're passionate about and dedicated to in your life. This is what religious folk sometimes refer to as a 'calling'.

Unfortunately, many religious folk at the moment confuse spirituality with the dictates of organized religion -- the do's and don'ts of dogma. They're more interested in converting people, or condemning people, than revealing what's affirming and empowering and compassionate and tolerant and selfless about spirituality. Believing in God, in a being external to us, should make us humble, not arrogant.

Kalvin said...

You know, I do like Buddhism, and I think it's something that speaks very much along these lines. It's part of understanding that there isn't a subject and an object or a dualistic nature, but collapsing that duality to understand how we are all one. I'm not really a "believer" but I'm pretty postmodern when it comes to science, but at least it is something that I find in my own pragmatic little way as something that can bring us forward.