Sunday, August 8, 2010

You have met the gaywad, and the gaywad is me


Occasionally, I think for a moment that I ought to be less of a curmudgeon. Just momentarily. And then I revert to type.

I suppose I will always see too much wrong with the world to ever truly lighten up about it. I suspect that there’s a self-reinforcing cycle at work here: Because I can tolerate acknowledging and listening to what is painful and unjust in life with compassion and with clear, sober vision, I work successfully in the eye of a human storm of illness, misery, trauma, neglect, and loss. And working in the eye of such a storm, I am never far enough from the painful and damaging aspects of life that I can be carefree about the dangers concealed around life’s every bend.

I had fresh occasion to think about this the other day as I got back on the freeway after dropping my son at camp for the day, and tuned in for a couple of minutes to the morning show banter on a popular local FM station. It happened to be the day after Judge Vaughn Walker issued his heartening ruling in the Proposition 8 case, and I had stayed up late to read it in its entirety. The juxtaposition of Walker’s thoughts with the ribbing going on among the twenty-something jocks on the staff at my son’s camp and the repartee of radio personalities was like driving down the highway on a pleasant day and catching a sudden whiff of road-killed skunk: visceral, impressive, timeless.

So here’s my curmudgeonly gripe for the day: I do not wish to lighten up about the generations that follow mine--the one that coaches at my son’s sports camp, for instance--who use the terms “gay,” or “gaywad” and the like, as terms of derision for what is weak, lame, dorky, or otherwise undesirable. And I don’t want to give media personalities a pass when they use the term “retard” to characterize what’s foolish or gauche--even if it’s a term I used myself as a child--and when they engage in sexist rants about women, or men, or vent their spleen about the idiosyncratic ways of recent immigrants. Oh, I know the defense…it’s just joking, not serious; “gaywad” really isn’t about gay people.

I learned from Erik Erikson years ago that a normal part of identity consolidation during development is the forceful rejection of alternate identities; that 8-year-old girls and 8-year-old boys think all things about the opposite sex are disgusting for reasons that are developmentally necessary for gender consolidation, and are ultimately benign, in their place. But I have gradually come to a firmer and firmer conclusion that spiritually we all need to grow--and those who conceive of themselves as spiritual leaders ought to lead us--beyond the collective expression of our 8-year-old selves. There are many objects of scorn that we deride (joking or not) as hated and inferior “others” which qualitatively are in fact merely “other”—not deserving of hate and not in any demonstrable way inferior to or less deserving than anyone else. The luxury of deriding them is a regressive pleasure, and I realize it is possible to be too uptight about this, just as it’s possible to be too uptight about poop and dirt. But I’d like to make the case that not being censorious enough about it, not aspiring sufficiently to an ideal of transcending it, carries the potential for needless harm and sometimes tragic harm. Which is why I think it’s more incumbent on spiritual leaders than say, handball partners in the locker room, to call forth from us our better angels rather than to demagogue our pre-adolescent hobgoblins.

I know I have spent my life especially attuned to the phenomena of scapegoating and stereotyping. I have never readily identified with the pleasure in generalizing about women and men, husbands and wives, breeders and homos, Latinos and Jews and WASPs, lawyers and doctors and construction workers. I realize that the attraction is there. I just found it much more likely, for example when visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum for the first time, that I’d identify with the position of Jews as targets of Nazi propaganda: There but for the grace of God, I thought, go I. The Nazis had their following, and Pat Robertson has his.

I think that especially those who purport to guide us to our higher selves should chastise us for the derision we heap on someone, anyone, whose principal transgression is being unlike us. It’s sometimes the opposite sex, sometimes another ethnicity, sometimes a different cultural group. (If you lack the imagination to think of the particulars, you can always rent Oliver Stone’s film version of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio for a compelling litany.) But too often the purported spokespersons for spiritual enlightenment, the ones who demand and get attention from the media for their supposed representation of righteousness, are those most entrenched in demonizing those outside their own little group.

When these demagogues engage in labeling my set of sensitivities as “political correctness,” my limbic system is kicked into overdrive. It’s in that moment I’m most able to comprehend outbreaks of civil war. I frequently think, but never actually say, that when armed conflict breaks out between threatened white people in America and the brown and black people they see as the enemy, or between those who want a Christian theocracy and the infidels and nonbelievers who resist, I have no doubt that I will take up arms, and whose side it will be for. But in the interest of avoiding a recurrence of civil war, and promoting civil accord, I truly wish that those who self-identify as spiritual leaders of every stripe would embrace the wisdom in guiding us toward the light--which is to say, away from the regressive pleasure we take in deriding the people unlike us as inferior, wrong, ridiculous, and--more than anything else--as a danger and a threat to us and our security.

This was the most welcome aspect for me of Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in Prop 8: He spoke directly about the lack of evidence for the often-repeated assertion that marriage for gay men and lesbians will undermine marriage for heterosexual couples. He puts this fantasy squarely where it belongs—in the realm of imaginary goblins. It is an assertion that belongs alongside the idea that fighting next to black men will demoralize white troops, that admitting women to the study of medicine will destroy confidence in the healing power of the profession, that the afflicted and the damaged should be hidden away from public view in asylums in remote small towns. He clearly articulates that this particular religious dictum is not the basis for distinctions in law. I would go one step further, and say what was beyond Judge Walker’s task in deciding this case, which is that this kind of religious thinking is lacking a mature psychology, and therefore a mature spirituality. It is religion far too ill-acquainted with the better angels of the human spirit. All of us would be better off if CNN, when they went to find spokespersons for people of religious faith, made it their practice to quote less regressive religious thinkers. This would be contrary to their own instinct to find conflict and drama in current events, but sometimes there’s virtue in less conflict, and more conciliation.

There is the famous Martin Niemoller quote that starts, “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a communist. And then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew….” I happen to be of the opinion that Niemoller’s warning is one we need to hear in every time, and every place, as long as there is a human condition. The grownups need to chide the children for their uncivil impulses. In the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." It is no coincidence that this line comes in the middle of a discourse on the nature of love. While it is cited most often at weddings, and therefore has become associated with romantic love, I think it would be a breath of fresh air to hear it cited as a guide for civic life. The planet urgently needs us all to love our neighbor. The idea that “he who is not like me must be derided in the interest of my security” is childish. Understandable, and childish.

I sometimes wonder--has Pat Robertson (or James Dobson or Cardinal George) actually read his own New Testament? If he did, he didn't hear it saying what I heard it say.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Real Men Who Eat Quiche


I have no desire to have the pope rise (or is it fall?) to the status of personal pet peeve. I am not his constituency, and he is not my leader. I could agree to live and let live. To the extent that he chooses to make the cultural forces of "the secular West" his enemy, and by decree, the enemy of his church, he is free to do so, and I will be one who agrees to wear the label of "secular Westerner."

My attention, however, is drawn to him and his pronouncements at those moments when he is making of secular Westerners a straw man, which it turns out he does quite inveterately.

In just his latest international outing, in Portugal, he said that "politicians, intellectuals, and communications professionals" profess and promote "a monocultural ideal, with disdain for the religious and contemplative dimension of life." So one has to be an atheist and unreflective to value the separation of church and state, or religious tolerance in the public sphere? while interreligious violence continues frequently to be the story they are reporting?

After writing recently about the Catholic Church and its ongoing sexual abuse scandal, I found myself fortunate to have a larger readership and to elicit more comment than my writing has ever previously enjoyed. To my surprise, my post was liberally copied and posted to other blogs, regional newspapers, and special interest websites. Among the comments were any number based in assertions that the Catholic Church continually puts out to the world--Rome's talking points, you might say--which unfortunately convey the distortions about secular people and those outside the Catholic Church that this pope has enunciated for the past several decades.

It seems important for a number of reasons to push back against what is not in fact a matter of divergent belief or values but rather simply untrue in these assertions. Untruth repeated over many years and never challenged becomes accepted as common knowledge or as consensus, when other points of view have the virtue of greater basis in the facts.

One of the pervasive refrains coming out of this pope and his apologists is that those who deviate from the church's "truth" are advocates or representatives of relativism, when this is not the case. There are among us the most serious of ethical thinkers. We are in fact mostly more Aristotelian ethicists while the pope is a more Platonic ethicist. We think that virtue lies in avoiding two dangers, relativism at one end and absolutism on the other. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, virtue lies in the Golden Mean, between two less desirable extremes, deficiency and excess. For Plato, virtue lies in the pursuit of ideal form, which lies in another world, and which the world we know can only approximate in a very imprecise way (Plato's exact simile was that this world only roughly approximates ideal forms in the way shadows cast on the wall of a cave by figures in front of a fire only roughly resemble the figures that cast them.) The pope is more of an ethical Platonist in that he thinks what God demands morally, instead of any pragmatic balancing, is adherence to what might be envisioned as the ideal.

To an absolutist, anyone who doesn't agree with him is a dangerous relativist, and the hierarchy indulges frequently in drawing a caricature of those who don't share their view as proponents of "anything goes." The accusation that those who disagree with the pope think that morally "anything goes" is not at all intellectually honest; we are mostly not libertines or anarchists, we are just some variety of ethical Aristotelian where he is an ethical Platonist. We think there are dangers in the elevation of the absolute to a sacred position and the disregard, or at least the de-emphasis, of the pragmatic good. We think condoms used in the service of saving life in the midst of an AIDS epidemic easily trump an ideal of all sexual acts being open to procreation, and we think the elevation of that ideal over the actual sum of its effects in the world here and now is an example of cruelty born of absolutism.

Natural law theory of the Scholastic period claimed to carry the mantle of Aristotle while in fact building mostly on Platonism, with the assertion that God's intended purpose for man--the other-worldly ideal that Plato said was projected dimly onto our current worldly existence--could be ascertained rationally from the evidence available to us--a sort of approachable limit, to use an analogy from calculus that helps unify Plato's conception of the world as dimly lit with a religious quest for moral certainty. Plato exerts a great deal of pull on Christians, who are attuned to the scriptural words of Jesus about his Father's otherworldly house where he was going to prepare a room for them. Yet even ethicists more sympathetic to Plato than to Aristotle would question whether new evidence is allowed to change, over time, our conclusions about the laws nature reveals. Is modern psychology allowed to have a say about man's transit on this Earth, or are we locked into what Thomas Aquinas knew in 1274? The Catholic Church, unlike fundamentalist Protestantism, at least allows that God's revelation to man is ongoing, rather than privileged to the words of holy scripture. But the two are similar in raising a cry of heresy or relativism when anyone attempts to stretch the outlines of tradition to accommodate new conclusions about the rightful purpose of man. The differences between an Aristotelian approach to ethics and a Platonic or Scholastically-adapted Platonic one should not be minimized. The conception of the good lying in the middle between extremes is in fact opposite to a concept of the good lying in an ideal that exists at a far limit. What it is not is an assertion that "anything goes."

It is ironic that the charge of relativism should come up in the midst of a discussion about the church and the scandal of sexual abuse. It takes a fairly tin ear not to hear that the more absolute moral censure of pedophile priests is coming from the church's critics, who are less willing than the hierarchy or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to balance an old priest's desire to "die with the dignity of his priesthood" against the cry of his victims for justice or even for significant consequences. Perhaps the hierarchy is truly surprised to find itself in a struggle for the upper hand against critics who take it to task for it's moral failures while maintaining a tolerant attitude themselves toward some things Rome ever since Aquinas has seen as outside of natural law. But the argument put forth that the critics of the church's response to the sexual abuse crisis are ultimately looking to score points for their permissive and indulgent world view because this pope has castigated them for the last three decades is an astonishing bit of sophistry that is fairly insulting to the victims of clerical abuse. Just maybe, they're actually ticked off about the way the effects of the abuse have been persistently and pervasively minimized. Blaming their critics for being relativists is so habitual for this church leadership, it doesn't matter how poorly their canard fits the situation at hand.

While the pope makes of secular Westerners a straw man, he mostly makes of homosexuals a bogey man. His assertion that children raised by a gay couple would be subject to a "great violence" because "their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development" is supported only by tautological arguments (gay parents cannot promote full development because only heterosexual couples can promote full development). After meeting privately with newly elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, at that time President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said of gay couples, "In these unions there are no promises for the partners or for the children, no stability, nothing before society or God, but they demand all the benefits of authentic marriage." This fervent derision is unfortunately impervious to actual evidence. Turn on the light, open the closet doors, look under the bed--homosexuals are still the bogey man because Benedict and his friends say we are.

Meanwhile, the general public for the most part decides, once they actually know gay people, that gay people are frighteningly...well, a lot like them. Justice Lewis Powell joined the majority of the United States Supreme Court and provided the swing vote in the 1986 Bowers vs. Hardwick decision, in which Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, stated that any claim that a right for homosexuals to engage in consensual adult sex in the privacy of their own homes is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty is, "at best, facetious." Four years later, retired from the court, Powell described his vote in that case as "probably a mistake." What religion did he get in the short intervening span? It may or may not have been the experience that converts so many to the view that homosexuals are deserving of equality, which is first-hand experience with particular individuals who are gay.

I harbor some degree of utopian fantasy (I am not deluded into thinking it's anything else) that the pope could not maintain his perspective and say the things he does if he actually came to know me, the life I live, and the work that I do. At a formative age, I really took to heart Thomas Merton's writings about contemplation as the way to give action depth, and action as a means of giving expression to contemplation. My ideas about God and church changed, but I hardly became materialistic or pursued a life lacking in meaning or in hope, as the pope would have us believe about secular people. And in my chosen line of work I have learned, sadly, a great deal about environments not conducive to children's full development--they exist in such abundance that one does not need to go looking for them where they don't exist. There is enough true evil and horror in the world, one does not need to populate it with fictional bogey men. But alas, to Benedict, a straw man and a bogey man are what I remain.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Listening to Prozac, Listening to Pedophilia


I am a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, and a psychoanalyst. It’s a peculiar life that I lead, listening to, thinking about, and trying to heal the maladies of mood, thought, character and self-regard (or lack thereof) that are brought to my office and to my couch. It was strange the first six months that I did it, and strange ten years later, and still strange twenty-plus years into it, as I am now. Not strange to me, just strange to most other people. I am enough of an introvert that most of the time I am content to sit with the muddle and the misery and keep them largely to myself, save for the conversations I have, usually at a somewhat abstract level, with other therapists and analysts who do what I do in their own offices. The epiphanies I share with individual patients have a way of sustaining a person like me, whose penchant for privacy and wealth of reserve is a good fit, and maybe even a necessary one, for the work that I do.

There’s something about the ongoing debacle of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, however, that leaves me feeling like the kid in the back of class raising his hand with something to say, and never called on. Years of listening to and thinking about the voices of the sexually abused, from every perspective, on and behind the couch, have led me to feel particularly endowed and particularly burdened with insight into these matters. The experience of growing up Catholic and spending time in “formation” at a Catholic seminary prior to medical school gives me a particular vantage from which to view the church. Yet my status as a gay man who is frequently singled out for particular censure by the Catholic hierarchy gives me pause when I think of commenting on their failings. Would anyone hear my voice and not think I am just peeved at my own excommunication from the fold? But it turns out I have a lot to say on the subject of pedophilia in the church. The dilemma seems only to be: Where do I start?

One of the observations made recently in the media that I found particularly trenchant came from Maureen Dowd, commenting on Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the Holy See, who said that the abuse scandal showed that Satan uses priests to try to destroy the church, “and so we should not be surprised if priests too ... fall into temptation. They also live in the world and can fall like men of the world.”

Dowd’s comment was “Actually, falling into temptation is eating cupcakes after you’ve given them up for Lent. Rape and molestation of children is far beyond what most of us think of as succumbing to worldly temptation.”

The failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to contemplate that maybe there is something about the church and the priesthood itself that breeds the sickness of pedophilia is exasperating in the extreme. The easy answer they prefer, that it is cultural permissiveness about sexuality that fosters the sexual abuse of children, is so lacking in insight and rich in smug self-regard that it makes me nearly apopleptic. The idea that mastery of a sexual life might be what guards against the trends that end in sexual abuse of children is so far from their comprehension that I hold little hope of their arriving at a position of moral wisdom on this subject, at least in my lifetime. They are as bought-in as a group of people can be to their doctrine that sexuality is sinful unless it is subordinate to procreation, and it is precisely this equation of all other aspects of sexuality, however they might be viewed by the rest of “the secular world” as opposites, as optimal and healthy on one end of the scale and deranged and perverse at the other, that disables their moral reasoning on the subject of sex. I think it also attracts the pedophilic character structure to the priesthood. If you know, deep in your heart, that your sexual and interpersonal reality is one that successful, actualized adults view as twisted and insufferable, then the twin enticements of the priesthood are these: The elusive ideal of chastity is seen as superior to a sexually expressive relationship between adults, and the intention to fulfill or attain it, even if doomed to occasional or frequent or, as we have seen, compulsive lapses, provides a balm of superiority to the battered self-esteem of the emotionally-hobbled pedophile. And the doctrine that all non-procreative acts are equally or at least similarly in violation of natural law, the view that enables Father Gabriele Amorth to think of child seduction or rape as “giving into temptation” instead of acts of an entirely other order, likewise appeals to the fractured vanity of the pedophile, who can feel he’s no worse than all the fornicating, contraception-using, masturbating masses, and maybe even a step above them, as he has worn the cloak of priestly virtues in at least some traditional respects, comforting the bereaved, preaching charity, forgoing personal wealth, stifling the impulse to petty gossip, and the like.

Certainly the Catholic priesthood over the centuries has attracted exemplary men, men of exceptional ego strength, uncompromised virtue, and true sacrifice. But it has also attracted quite the opposite, and the church cannot pretend that its attraction of large numbers of pedophiles has nothing to do with the contours of the institution it has created. The longstanding and current assertion that it is permissiveness about homosexuality in the secular world with which the church must coexist, or perhaps on the formation staffs of its own seminaries, that accounts for the ghastly pervasiveness of sexual abuse by ordained priests, is not merely misguided and inaccurate. It is that (misguided and inaccurate), and it's a logical outgrowth of their superiority complex about the renunciation of sex for gratification’s sake, but it is also pathetic, dishonest, and selfish—-the scapegoating of yet another vulnerable population-—and it’s unworthy of anyone who would make claims to honesty, charity or moral authority.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy exists in a world of their own deliberate perpetuation that is pre-modern and basically ahistorical with respect to sexuality. The actual world in which we live, in which health and maturity are achieved, or in which they prove to be beyond the capacity of certain unfortunate or, yes, morally defective individuals, is not one in which moral wisdom exists only in the valuing of virginity and the observance of due gravity about procreative capacity. Almost any normal, moral, mature adult could tell you this. The hierarchy of the church, however, cannot or will not. While we know the large chasm, and many differences, between the activities of a pedophile with a child and the consensual, respectful, tender activities of two adults who are motivated by many things but not by any wish to conceive a child, the church hierarchy conflates them in an instant, and points to our tolerance for the supposed evils of the latter as breeding ground for the former. Psychologically, this happens to be the exact opposite of the truth, and in the twenty-first century we are not such victims of misinformation that we can’t come right out and say so. Pedophiles cannot manage the rigors that adults in functional, intimate, ongoing sexual relationships with other adults must rise to: We must let another whole, more-or-less equal person, whose interests we must consider mutually with our own, into the vulnerable and messy recesses of our lives, and not only survive it but come back to it another day and in fact come back to it on a string of other days stretching forward into an indefinite future. Pedophiles, on the other hand, are terrified of vulnerability. They either avoid it entirely, or keep an internal running score of acts of domination that compensate for what they feel are the accumulated humiliations of interpersonal relations, and so lead split lives of seeming normalcy alongside hidden perversity that, in their view of things, equalizes the psychic imbalance. It is the capacity to accept ourselves as imperfect and messy and perhaps at times ridiculous in our own eyes, and in the eyes of at least our chosen intimate partner, and the ability not to judge our imperfections too harshly, that makes us capable of sexual intimacy in its most moral form. It is the inability to tolerate any such thing that prompts the pedophile to do what he does. The teaching that sexual relations for purposes that are not procreative, or even masturbation, are evil in the eyes of God does not help any individual prepare for sexual or interpersonal maturity, or to direct their sexual energies into channels that are consistent with health instead of the tortured path of sickness and depravity.

A second subject, tangled up with the splitting of life into normalcy and perversity that so often attends to the existence of pedophilia, is the meaning of secret-keeping. Part of the domination of a child by a pedophile is coercion to accept that the reality of these events is authored only by the abuser; they have only the meaning he gives them or are in fact made magically unreal by his wish that they be so. Most any survivor of sexual abuse can tell you that secrecy about the events of their abuse protects the abuser and perpetuates the destruction of the victim. How is it that members of the hierarchy can unselfconsciously utter the assertion that they thought secrecy was in the best interests of the Universal Church? They are more than a bit like Michael Jackson telling Martin Brashear on network television that there was nothing wrong about an adult sharing his bed with children, in fact nothing more beautiful in the world, and not realizing that he had, by his own obliviousness, convicted himself in the court of public opinion. No one in their right moral mind could have said what he said, and most everyone but him knew it instantly. Exactly what is the moral derangement that allows some, many, in fact, in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to perceive a greater moral good in secret-keeping about priestly pedophilia than in bringing pedophilia into the light, and marshalling every force, religious and civil, that could bring it to an end? That greater moral good is not apparent to we mere lay people, and we do not suspect, as a matter of fact, than any exists. I for one suspect that the hierarchy’s different ordering of values has something to do with the very notion of hierarchy-—that the mutuality and equality that orders life for those of us who maintain intimate adult relationships is at odds with the hierarchical order of Roman Catholic clerical life, and the idea that one’s subordinates should accept bearing a cross for the good or the aggrandizement of someone or something greater seems more in keeping with moral order when everyone is one up or one down, and never straight across the breakfast table from you.

Few in the Roman Catholic hierarchy could care less what I think, except perhaps if there’s an advantage to be gained in tying an unwelcome message to a messenger as discredited as me. But I believe, nevertheless, that the reformation necessary to address what’s ailing their church is one in which the inequalities between clergy and laity, male and female, celibate and sexual, adult and child, gay and straight, all begin to bend to the sensibilities of the-—heaven forfend!—-modern world in which we find ourselves. Only then will the exploitation of the weak, and the cover-ups that perpetuate it, strike them in something like the way it strikes us—as an unmitigated injustice, with no veneer of godliness.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thoughts about Gods and idols, on a day between Pesach and Easter, 2010


I may doubt the existence of God, but there’s little doubt in my mind about the perils of idolatry.

In my understanding, it falls under the definition of idolatry to worship a God we have imagined to be like us, and not consider that an infinite divinity is likely to be beyond our self-centeredness, beyond our insecurity, our shame, our doubt, our vengefulness, our sadism, our single-mindedness, our intolerance, our venality. If there is a God, natural or supernatural, it would seem to be in the definition of God to be larger than our frail imaginations, and larger than our anthropomorphic declarations about “His” mind and motives.

I believe quite passionately (fervently, to use a word to use a word that is usually reserved for the traditionally religious) that those who believe in a supernatural being are most spiritual when they avoid dividing the sacred and the profane along the same line that separates believers in their own version of God from believers in God by another name, or believers in a supernatural God from the believers in none. When they make these divisions, I think what is displayed is reckless hubris and ultimately, idolatry. Though I may doubt the existence of God, of this I am convinced: the idolatry of thinking God has taken our side is a most grievous sin against the very nature of what is sacred. The experience of the sacred is far too important to humanity to be sequestered by only those--and for only those--who believe in one particular, or in fact any, supernatural being.

A fair number of us, supernaturalists and non-supernaturalists alike, would sanctify the moral tenet that to obliterate others in the name of the divine, to persecute them, certainly, or enslave them, but even to demean them or treat them in any way other than according to the golden rule, belongs to the category of evil, not to the category of good. I consider these my spiritual brethren. I sadly fear that we are not a majority on the planet, and never have been, but that in itself does not defeat us, annihilate us, convert us, or cause us to despair.

The faithful can call me an atheist, or not. It is not important to me. I hope I can be credited with this: that I strive to possess the virtue of humility and avoid the sin of idolatry. Can they say the same, themselves? Are those two things a virtue and a sin, respectively, in their vocabulary? How disciplined, logical, mature, consistent, generous, fair and loving is their own act of faith? Or do they not take ownership of their faith as their own act? Do their holy scriptures relieve them of any such responsibility? Jean-Paul Sartre receives a lot of contempt from people who’ve never read a word he wrote, but one of his assertions that I came to appreciate in a profound way in my college years is this: We cannot blame our beliefs or our actions on those who have advised us, because ultimately the fact of our human existence once we reach maturity is that we choose our advisers. That includes choosing holy scripture.

Freedom of religion served as a major organizer of the Constitution of the United States. It was a dearly-held principle at the time of its drafting-—made dear by much recent and cumulative religious persecution. I am happy to stand with its defenders, because I know it is a right on which much human happiness depends, and without which much human suffering proliferates. It gets far more lip service than it gets true respect and appreciation. It is attacked incessantly by many who claim to hold it in high esteem. At its core is a value that I consider to be deeply spiritual-—that my fellow man and I have mutual and equal rights to declare what is sacred and divine in our experience, and that recognition of this equality is itself a declaration of something held sacred, the absence of which is best regarded as a manifestation of evil.

There is in our culture an oft-stated aphorism that everything happens for a reason. This is a thesis usually associated with numerous corollaries, any of which may be doubted: if we believe not everything happens for a reason, then we think we have been abandoned by God, or worse, we have abandoned “Him;” either way, nothing could possibly be sacred any longer, nothing moral or immoral, nothing endowed with meaning. But perhaps these assertions are false. The conception of a God with a plan that stretches infinitely in every direction stretches, itself, in every direction but one, which is toward contemplation that perhaps our human lot is to grapple with our existence and our need for morality and our need for categories of sacred and profane without the simplicity of a divinely-conceived reason for it all. Contemplation that our lot may be to cope with events as having a natural or human cause and not bring the supernatural in to share blame or authorship.

One of the spiritual highlights of my last several decades has been to sit in a planetarium and look at the Hubble Deep Field. It is an image of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major, constructed from a series of photographs taken over ten consecutive days in December, 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers an area just 2.5 arcminutes across, therefore just two millionths of the sky. The field is so small that only a few foreground stars in the Milky Way lie within it, yet there are 3,000 objects in the image, all the rest of which are other galaxies. Galaxies; not solar systems, not planets. Three years later, the image called the Hubble Deep Field South was compiled, of a similar tiny slice of the south celestial hemisphere. The similarities between this bit of sky and the one in the Hubble Deep Field advanced our understanding that the universe is uniform all around us, and that the region of the universe the Earth occupies is typical. That means that in ten days, measurable light from 1.5 billion galaxies could be photographed if we undertook to photograph the entire sky. How many would we see-—because enough of their light finally reached us in measurable amounts—-in a month? In a year?

My rational mind—-the mind that has travelled the worlds of chemistry and biology and medicine--understands that the chances that the elements that combined to give rise to carbon-based life here on Earth have done so only here, and nowhere else in the universe, are infinitesimally small. And my spiritual self-—yes, I insist that I have one, just as much as any other human-—believes that if any of us on Earth undertakes to conceive of God as universal, then our need for humility, in the face of the enormity of the universe, cannot be overstated. Could we ever be too circumspect, too tolerant, too patient, too humble in our assertions? Seems unlikely to me.

If life on Earth is not unique, but in fact typical of life elsewhere in the universe, what could we expect to deduce from it? It seems to me that the challenge for us is how to live with our fellow beings in a way that gives us meaning and hope and moral direction, while at the same time recognizing that the universe—-by the hand of a supernatural God or not-—gave rise to sentient others just as it gave rise to us. Annihilation of the other could be our godly imperative, just as submission to annihilation could be the path to eternal, non-corporeal life. But what about the other possibilities? Are they less likely? What if divinity lies along the path of co-existence, however difficult that turns out to be? What if the concept of the devil, of the evil other, was just an anthropomorphic projection on the universe, a supernatural goblin we conceived, to help us make sense of the terrors of existence? What if our true godly orientation to the other is always to figure out best how to hold onto ourselves, not lose ourselves as we meet him or her, and yet not annihilate what is them, on the assumption that they are our equal? When I think about things that I hold to be undeniably immoral-—bullying, battering, murder, child sexual abuse, genocide-—what is apparent to me is the psychic annihilation intended in all of them. These are the acts that would rouse me to defensive action. I would live with ambivalence about the harm, destruction or death entailed in my cause, but it’s where I would confidently plant my spiritual colors and defend my ground.

I spent years feeling deeply conflicted about the casual statements by others that they would ‘pray for me,’ or requests they made that I ‘pray for them’ or those they loved. For years, I couldn’t say ‘yes, I would,’ because I couldn’t pray in the way I did as a child, to the God I had been taught existed. Only in my forties have I concluded that I am entitled to my own understanding of divinity, and that my will, lifted and directed in hopeful expectation of redemption, whatever that may be, is just as sacred and worthy of solicitation as anyone else’s. I will not pray that your team wins the Superbowl, or that your daughter’s team wins her swim meet—-it insults my concept of everything properly spiritual. But I will pray for anyone’s comfort, and peace, and solace-—because I do not believe that the meaning of the sacred is in the path of suffering, but instead that it endures despite suffering. I understand that frequently the sacred might lie down a path that requires a person to turn away from selfishness, destruction, and falsehood, and that the mantle of responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions can be a painful one to pick up and bear. But I cannot sanctify as “prayer” my wishes that anyone encounter ill for the sake of ill, or suffering for the sake of vengeance. I know better. I have changed my mind over time about how to respond, though, when people ask me to pray for them. Now I say that I will, and I mean it. I am a spiritual person who does not believe in a supernatural God. I pray, maybe not every day, and certainly not in my most venal, selfish moments, but I do pray; I pause to lift my will in the direction of what I understand to be sacred and divine, for my family, for my friends, sometimes even for my enemies, and always for the safe forward transit of our tiny Earth in our incomprehensibly enormous universe. I just do not require the certainty of a respondent in order to know I am praying.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Concerning Hell, Private or Otherwise

While kicking around on my ancestry website the other day, I noticed that my Aunt Liz, my mother’s oldest sibling, will be turning 94 in two weeks. The most recent photo I saw of her was on her Christmas card last year, which showed her riding a camel near the pyramids on the trip she took, by herself, to Egypt.

There was a time, in fact most of my last several decades, when I could easily say I expected to follow in her footsteps; that her spirit, as well as her good genes, had been passed on to me, and I could take for granted the prospect of generativity into old age. Something has happened lately, in my 49th year of living, that I did not see coming. I think it’s what they call a midlife crisis.

I never thought I would be the person to have one. At every earlier age, I’ve resolved not to fight the changes the years bring: I cropped my hair close to my head when baldness made it clear that denial was unseemly; I changed the colors in my wardrobe when I was no longer a blonde who could wear olive and gold, and the grey in my beard was flattered only by blue and white; I started watching carbs when the scale started reading 10 pounds higher than I was accustomed to. I did not think I was allowing any confrontations with age to sneak up and catch me unaware.

Then it seems one did.

I have spent months now trying to put a finger on it. It’s not as though I have many regrets about the direction I have taken my life. I can point to all the major decisions of my last decade and say I’d happily make the same ones over again. I am not ready to renege on any of the commitments I have made, to parenthood, to marriage, to career. If anything, my funk seems to stem from an unwelcome realization that I have reached my limits in a way that I never have before. In the course of a week I struggle to find the energy it takes to follow through with current plans, to wake the child and supervise the science projects, to keep the dog in kibbles and keep clean socks in the drawer (or at least in the dryer) on a weekday morning, to return the phone calls that can’t be postponed and to move the work projects forward that are coming due, to think at least occasionally about the need to creatively advance what is done at the agency that employs me (where my ordinary responsibilities are piled high and the exigent needs of patients are always pressing down) and I hit an existential moment where I think, “Is this all there's going to be, then?” I entertain the thought that I might burn out my last ounces of energy following through on my current commitments, only to discover that something really important got overlooked, postponed too long, left on the shelf past its expiration date-—or past mine—-because time and energy and devotion were never spared to undertake it. I worry that the friends I have will drift off and eventually die off, and suddenly I dread finding myself stranded, alone, without the capacity to make any new ones.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my life. I love my husband and my child and my work. But heading toward the benchmark of 50-—less than 20 months off, now-—there is something afoot that I quite possibly think-—or feel-—that I hate. Something that can cast a dark pall over the whole, quite against my will.

I am put in mind of the ending of the movie “Amadeus,” when Antonio Salieri in his wheelchair describes himself as the patron saint of the mediocre. He turns and addresses the audience directly. “Mediocrities everywhere...I absolve you...I absolve you...I absolve you..I absolve you all,” he says. I think my dark pall these days may be the internal judge who does hate, in fact, the mediocrity of my life. Who disdains my failures and my limits and my isolation, disdains the tree-falling-in-a-forest anonymity of my cumulative efforts in the course of a day, the course of a year, the course of a lifetime.

I wonder what motivates me to spend the time I do researching lost ancestors over the internet, and gives me such pleasure to find their gravestones in Willow Island, Nebraska, or Adrian, Michigan when their names but not their ultimate fates have been known to me throughout my life. Is it just a vain effort to fight my own encroaching sense that my life is one of anonymous toil, misspent devotion, and ultimate unimportance?

I left my saints in childhood, in the way that Elizabeth Barrett Browning referenced when she professed “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints.” I do not believe they are in the sky, able to intercede for me with the Almighty. But there was another idea of saints that I had when I was little, one of saints being spiritual role models, and that is one I may still need now and then. I may need it now, especially, at midlife.

Antonio Salieri was not a saintly man, at least not in his movie version, but I think of him, all these years after F. Murray Abraham and the crew put away their props and ceased their efforts on “Amadeus.” I think of his offer of absolution for mediocrity, and how dear that suddenly seems. I need absolution for what is being left undone, for the traits I have not evidenced, my omissions as a parent, the friends I have not cultivated, the affection I have squandered because I have chosen something else, chosen my job, chosen my patients, chosen perhaps the vain significance of work over the more important significance of something else, all the while not knowing, blind, foolhardy-—and yet moving inexorably into tomorrow still not knowing, just living with the choices I have made and hoping I am not judged too harshly for how sadly I stack up to the next person, whose more admirable human qualities will make his or her time here on Earth a better, more praiseworthy journey.

Is this what it means to look at life and realize you’re well beyond halfway, and your energies are only declining from here on out? Your focus becomes drawn away from what is, to what is not, with regret? With judgment? With encroaching sadness? If it’s too late for me to get a new superego, then maybe I can have back one of my saints-—the one who promised to be my patron. Saint Antonio Salieri, I beseech thee, absolve me of my mediocrity. Soon, if that can be arranged. By my 50s, I want to get back to just living life, without any dark cloud overhead. I want to wake up and start the day with lightness in my step.

(P.S. I hope, Antonio, that you are not actually in hell.)