Hoping and Fearing and Sliding Into the Sea

Yankee Beach on a slant

I took this photo this summer on Prince Edward Island’s Yankee Beach in honor of Nanna who always took pictures on an angle (now granted, this was in the days of square photos, so she had some noble artistic license on her side). When I came across it today I was struck by the way this picture encapsulates one angle of my world view. I can find myself in great tumults of panic at the state of the world and can start to believe that we are on a steep slide into oblivion. Granted, this wash of emotion is often related to the ocean rising and swallowing the land rather than the other way around, but the spirit is the same.

I am sure that there are basic personality archetypes that make one more or less likely to spin into alternating fits of passion and despair at the state of the wider world. As I have moved from thinking that fiction then poetry then women’s rights then law then environmentalism then spirituality was the most pressing concern during this particular chance I have on the planet, I realize I am most certainly one who cannot get the state of the universe off of her mind. Another aspect of this need to engage with the broken world seems to be the belief that this is the worst it has ever been – I mean look at the carbon crisis and nuclear proliferation and preemptive warfare and global epidemics and the poverty and sexism and racism that just will not go away! While I am certain that many wise people could talk about natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature and the evils of typhoid and the fact that we have an African American and a woman running credible campaigns and all the rest, for me these issues just will not go away.

When certain members of my family hear about the fact that I have my doubts about saving for retirement because I don’t really think the banking system will exist in the forty or so years that separate me from my 401K (but I save anyway because, as we have established earlier, I am a really well meaning hypocrite – aren’t most of us?) they always tell me that I just don’t know how good things are now. I’m told to consider the politics of assassination or that the Vietnam casualties were more than ten times that of the wars now and that hey, we fixed that hole over Antarctica, didn’t we? (Wait, did we? I remember lots of talk of CFCs and the ozone layer in elementary school, but we seem to have lost interest in that particular angle…) I just leave the conversation wondering who is fooling themselves – those who cannot bear to imagine that we are on the path to a social/political/environmental disaster or those who are desperately afraid we are on a lethal collision course of our own making?

Many times I have tried to sort out why such a big part of me believes we are in such a terrible state. What do I gain from living my life with tinges of Armageddon on the horizon? Does a belief in humanity’s narcissistic penchant for annihilation a) get me off the hook since we are all lost anyway, b) give me a sense of purpose because I have obsession with someday playing some sort of savior or c) is it just an organic aspect of who I am, a(n) (over)sensitivity that whips me into a muted frenzy? And how do I explain that despite this worry and dread, I am still a hopeful creature who believes we can walk through the darkest times and emerge a stronger, more beautiful world?

But as I spend my evening writing this rather than considering how to quit my comfortable job with its terribly comforting benefits package in order to chain myself to a tree along the Amazon or join Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta, I realize that enough of me must be able to deal with the ills listed herein. Or perhaps none of those terrible phenomena have yet hit quite close enough to home…

Recasting the Emperor, Speaking Truth With the Children

This August while visiting family on Prince Edward Island (the most beautiful place on earth) I read Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, a novel about a passel of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers in the months before September 11. I had a backpack full of Rumi and Merton, but all I could do was tangle myself in the wreckage of these lives (and they were wrecked well before a tower fell).

I was restless because I was compelled to finish an inconsequential novel when I should have been contemplating the herons fishing in the marsh and the way the barley fields rolled into the sea; I should have been thinking deep thoughts about the soul and immortalizing them for the cold winter that would surely follow those exquisite summer days. This was one of the first pieces of fiction I had read since my spiritual studies had begun in earnest. The literary elite that I might so have wished to emulate once upon a time seemed to wage a constant assault on belief and believers, dismissing them as so many simple sheep, weaker minded fools to be pitied for needing such pablum. Because I was unable to find anything other than my own spinning mind in meditation and prayer just sounded like rhetoric that week, I felt vaguely assailed by their derision. Was it because the author cast these people as brilliant and famous and witty and worthy of recognition? Am I so susceptible to doubt? Did Messud hit such a sore spot that I was unable to sense the irony in her portrayals? The climate of this book, in which there really were no victors, made the option of relying strictly on education and reason seem more viable than anything else; the only “believers” were the sad and lonely types who seemed to find a comfort in a hard, cold pew, kneeling before an oblivious silence.

Why I began to think of this book today is unclear. Perhaps it surfaced in the course of one of the many inner dialogs in which I try to sort out what sort of person I am meant to be now that I declare my interest in matters of the spirit to be the most compelling of my life. Where do I fit in the country’s current religious continuum that seems to include only faddish atheism and cafeteria Catholicism (Judiasm/Presbyterianism/Unitarian Universalism/etc.) and religious zealots in the red states? I don’t chose to be counted with “New Agers” (a vaguely recognized footnote that doesn’t quite fit into the spectrum) even if my eclectic faith fits in best under that umbrella because such an affiliation invariably leads to collecting way too many paperbacks I’d never read and seems to call my own intellectualism into question.

Though I raise these questions, I do so with a pervading sense of optimism. I realize the solitary nature of my particular path at this moment, but proceed with the confidence that we will recover from the silliness that has infected the corners of society not preoccupied with body counts and global warming over the past few years. Certainly there will always be the naysayers and those who make a career of doubt, and surely we need to foster healthy conversation about the nature of both belief and disbelief. At the same time, I also trust that we will be able to move to a discussion of faith that does not draw exclusively on bestselling discourses on Godlessness and the predilections of specific voting blocks and embrace a constructive discussion based on passion and respect rather than sound bytes and judgment.