Shutting up isn't easy.
Or it's too easy, one or the other.
Either way, as you can tell from the length of this post, I'm having trouble with shutting up and it's starting to get me in trouble.
For the majority of my life I shut up about my beliefs on most things, at least on subjects that matter the most. Politics. Religion.
It took meeting Annie for me to finally come to my senses about that last item, to understand that shutting off part of your heart out of fear is like locking away a wild animal in a cage. Eventually you go a little crazy, I think, the hole where you're shutting away that part of yourself slowly sucking the life out of the rest of you.
Living in that prison is comfortable in some ways, just like that caged animal probably finds some ease in its confinement. You get used to the numbness, and you don't have to deal with the sharp edges and prickly points of disappointment. Routine is comforting. There are no surprises, just the safe monotony of sameness.
But once that cage door is opened and you get your first taste of wide open fields and the feel of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair (or stubble, in my case) -- well. There's no going back, and that's all there is to it.
Understanding what it is to love and be loved was the first crack in the walls, but it led, inevitably, to opening other vaults I'd thought safely sealed. I questioned my politics, my religion, my values. I put myself on trial, and I was a merciless judge. The trial continues, every day, and apparently the transcripts are scaring some people. Aunt Sharon pointed out in a very kind comment that the subject of atheism on this blog is causing a friend of hers some distress.
It's strange to think of myself as some kind of terrifying monster, I who have lived so much of my life in dread of causing anyone distress even by my mere presence; I even avoid calling people on the phone because I don't want them to feel like they have to talk to me when they'd really rather not.
Not exactly Wolfman or Frankenstein material there, is it?
In other places I've been told that by talking about the answers I find that bring me peace -- by talking openly about my agnostic atheism -- I am somehow endangering the minds of children I care a great deal for.
I see the same dread, the same fear, the same anger directed at atheists in many different venues. And I get it, on one level -- differences are frightening. Someone who refuses to sing along with the choir, who deliberately sets themselves apart, who grabs the mantle of "Not Normal!" and flaunts it, that's scary. It's unsettling.
Kids understand this. The worst thing that can happen to a kid is to be different. Tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white, an innie versus an outie, black hair in a class of blonds, it doesn't matter -- if a kid is different, odds are good that some pain is going to come from it. Other kids don't like different.
Average is safe, and most kids take their refuge there if they're lucky.
I think I've been fighting to be average for most of my life, and failing. I mean that not in an arrogant way, like I'm somehow better than everyone else. No, I mean it exactly the opposite, I feel in so many ways like I am less than everyone else, somehow deeply flawed by my inability to conform. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be like everyone else.
I just didn't have any choice but to be who I was, as awful as I so often found that person to be.
There were times I would have given a limb to be just like everyone else. Not to have to answer questions about riding the short bus to school (literally -- we rode a short bus to the special program we were in). Not to have to make jokes to deflect questions about where I spent the first half of every day. Not to get more of a kick out of Monty Python than in the latest sports scores.
Not to feel as if every Sunday I was lying by mouthing words I did not believe.
But my curse has always been that I cannot help but to be honest with myself. There's a great line from the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic "Princess of Mars" when the hero, John Carter, denies that he is brave:
Their attention was so wholly riveted to this point of interest that they did not notice me, and I easily could have turned back into the dark recesses of the gorge and made my escape with perfect safety. The fact, however, that this thought did not occur to me until the following day removes any possible right to a claim to heroism to which the narration of this episode might possibly otherwise entitle me.I might have wanted to change my beliefs to conform to my classmates, but I simply couldn't. Like John Carter with regards to cowardice, I make no claim that this is somehow a laudable quality of mine, for it is something completely beyond my control.
I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.
I can't help but be who I am, even though (as I said before) there have been many (many) times in my life when I've absolutely hated that very self.
What good is it to play the chameleon so successfully that you forget what your skin really looks like?
I feel such honest joy when someone I know sheds that fake skin, that mask of conformity, to discover who they truly are and what they honestly believe that I can't understand why they don't feel the same for me when I do the same. No, I don't believe in your God. So what?
Our commandment, Christian and atheist alike, is to love each other. That doesn't seem very complicated, but a lot of people never seem to get it. I suppose that's only fair, because I honestly don't get why atheists scare theists so much, why we're thought of as worse than terrorists. We're people, just like you. We have thoughts and hopes and fears and dreams. We want our families to be happy, to live prosperous and joyful lives. We empathize with the plight of those less fortunate than we are.
Or we don't. Some of us are complete pricks, just like some of the people standing next to you in church every Sunday.
Is that what's so unsettling to you? That maybe we're just like you are, even though we don't believe in your God? Would it be better if we bore some kind of Mark of Cain, some obvious Sign of the Beast or crippling deformity that would make it easier for you to see how God has spurned us, even as you believe we have spurned Him?
Are you waiting for the smiting, and its absence is angering you?
I don't require you to change your beliefs, not one iota. I'm happy that you've found answers. Is it too much to ask that you return the favor, to understand that although you don't agree with me, that I'm not evil, or a fool, or an untutored wretch? That maybe -- just maybe -- we can both be good people who treat others with love and respect, even if we don't worship the same (or any) God?
Atheists aren't scary people, or at least no scarier than your average cross-section of a Sunday church crowd. We're just people. Like I said, maybe that's what's frightening you, but whatever it is, I'm telling you flat out, you're wrong to be afraid. Judge us not by our beliefs, but by our actions, just as you would any of your fellow churchgoers.
I know that's hard, especially since your holy book has some pretty strong words to say about decrying unbelievers. But it also has some even stronger words about loving us anyway, about treating us fairly, with respect and tolerance. Jesus allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears. Do you think that was an endorsement of prostitution? Do you think Christ meant that as a lesson that you should be a prostitute? Do you think He feared that His disciples would somehow become contaminated by knowing these women existed?
Clearly not. The simplest answer is that Jesus loved them because they were people. He didn't share their beliefs -- indeed, if you think Christ was Lord then he knew they were wrong as no human can ever know anything. And yet, He treated them not with scorn and hatred, but with respect and tolerance, accepting their love (though not rooted in worship of His father) as true and honest.
There's this wonderful story about the Buddha that I think is very appropriate here, and which (like the washing of the feet in the Bible) brings me great peace and resonates with me at a fundamental level. Even if you're not a follower of Buddhism (as I am not) I hope you'll indulge me for a moment while I paraphrase it.
Two priests were walking in a forest when a beautiful doe burst through the undergrowth and collapsed at their feet. An arrow had pierced her heart, and her strength was almost gone. The two priests observed the animal closely, debating about what would happen at the moment of death, whether animal spirits could be seen, and how the manner of its passing would affect its karma in the next life.Don't we all have enough to do here, right now, on this earth and with these people, without letting our fears about matters completely beyond our control get in the way of our loving and helping each other?
As the animal slowly, painfully slid closer to death, the Buddha happened along the path. Seeing the injured animal, he rushed to its side and drew out the long arrow, staunching the flow of blood with his own robe, saving its life "You can argue about metaphysics later", the Buddha said. "For now we have plenty to do just trying to keep this doe alive."
I'm not someone you should fear, no matter what I talk about on my blog, or what I believe (and don't) in my heart. Take joy that I have found a way to pull out the arrow, even if it's not the same way you would have done it. Every foot set along a path is one less lonely beast trapped in a cage when it could be running free. Take joy in its emancipation, even as the different path you walk brings you your own peace and contentment.
That's all we ask, to be given the same opportunity you have had, to find our answers and to seek our homes. There's nothing scary about that.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Shutting up isn't easy.