Category Archives: Later, in commentary

In a Strange Land: Ten

I was a spiritual skeptic. I believed that compassion and kindness were good things, but I doubted that spirituality had anything to do with it.

My sense of morality had its origins in my childhood experiences, the influence of my parents—who somehow managed to teach me right from wrong—and the ubiquitous and subtle influences of the culture that I was born into. This moral sense was not a revelation that came to me as a product of religious or contemplative spirituality. As I grew older, it just felt right to take responsibility for my actions, for my fate, for my way of being and to feel compassion for others.

I came into exile with nothing that I could describe as a “spiritual life.” There was no part of my day or week that I devoted to “being spiritual.” I distrusted the suggestion that spirituality was essential to happiness.

And yet I believed that compassion and kindness had value. I knew that tragedy, grief and loss were real and sooner or later would come to find me, just as they had found—and would continue to find—those around me. I would need comfort and hope at such times. It would be a heavy burden for Lisea to bear alone. We would need compassion and kindness from others. We would need a network of others who would care about us. That was our spiritual community: those who cared.

But my spiritual community felt tiny. Though empathy came naturally to me, it seemed that I was not often called to practice it. My spiritual community was small because my compassion had been selective. It was difficult for me to feel “oneness” with other people. It seemed easier for me to feel one with the natural world.

I could call on the natural world for beauty—even for moments of transcendence—but would I find compassion or kindness, hope or comfort in nature? The natural world was larger than me yet, at the same time, so much smaller.

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  • 63
    BILL. Do you folks have a faith? JEANETTE. We’re spiritual but we’re not part of any organized religion. … BILL. Neil, what about you? NEIL. My parents were agnostics. BILL. But do you have any kind of belief? NEIL. I’m not sure, Bill, when you say that you believe in…
  • 62
    I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.…
  • 59
    There have been moments in exile when it seems there is nothing that propels me forward. More than moments, really, for the thought is not merely momentary. If not moments, then perhaps I could call them passages of time when there is an absence of things needing to be done,…

The Question of Belief

BILL. Do you folks have a faith?

JEANETTE. We’re spiritual but we’re not part of any organized religion.

BILL. Neil, what about you?

NEIL. My parents were agnostics.

BILL. But do you have any kind of belief?

NEIL. I’m not sure, Bill, when you say that you believe in something, it means that you’ve been given enough evidence to accept it as fact.

[Jane Anderson, The Quality of Life]

Like Neil, I am not sure that I have any kind of belief. My parents might have been agnostics, although they were Unitarians, so I couldn’t tell. I do not believe in God, gods or goddesses–unless gods and goddesses are never more than metaphors.

I do not believe in heaven or hell as destinations in an afterlife. For that matter, I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife.

Tribalistic rituals of any kind make me uncomfortable. I was never baptized.

I am not, in Jeanette’s words, “part of” any organized religion.

Despite my woeful lack of religiosity, I believe in simple ethical rules of right and wrong. Kindness is good. Empathy is good. Murder and thievery are wrong. Racism is abhorrent.

I believe that I am a good person. Like most people, I was not cut to perfection. I made mistakes. I have regrets. I never wanted to be saintly, and I imagine that I disqualified myself for a halo long ago.

Is goodness, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

I believe that imperfections make people interesting.

I do not have religion, whether the old-time kind or new age-y. But am I, like Jeanette, spiritual? I believe that spirituality transcends religion. Spirituality seems larger than rules of right and wrong. Spirituality seems larger than morality. There is something about spirituality that I cannot quite reach.

Should I cultivate spirituality in my life? Questions about spirituality have rested unanswered in my mind for as long as I can remember, certainly for all of my adult life. Was there a now-forgotten crisis of the soul that called these questions to my mind? I have allowed myself to ignore questions of belief and questions of spirituality, and these questions remain unanswered in the final third of my life.

I find myself now in this strange landscape where there is more space to think about questions that I never need to answer.

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Some other stuff for later,

  • 63
    I was a spiritual skeptic. I believed that compassion and kindness were good things, but I doubted that spirituality had anything to do with it. My sense of morality had its origins in my childhood experiences, the influence of my parents—who somehow managed to teach me right from wrong—and the…
  • 57
    I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.…
  • 48
    She surprises me every time she shows her face, and yet she has always been with me. Now that I am in exile, I know that she is closer, though perhaps she has always been this close. It may be that the only thing that is different now is that…