Every step I’ve taken has led me to where I am right now, and it’s hard to pick one situation or event that influenced me being here now more than the rest. It could be funny to review all my near death experiences, because if any of those had taken a different turn, I certainly wouldn’t be here today. I’ve sat here for a while pondering my answer, although I’m not supposed to be “thinking” too hard–just journaling.
I’ve had some nasty things happen to me, and at first I thought those shaped me more than other experiences, but it’s not about what happens to you–it’s about how you learn to use that experience to better yourself and others. I think the single-most influential experience in my life involves religion and my home town Episcopal church, St. Francis of Assissi.
After my mom left, dad had to figure out how to take care of me and my younger brother by himself, and one of the first things he did was take us to church. We tried a few out, and in the end, Dad’s humble spirit picked a small, welcoming church full of love, laughter, and joy. Dad was big on work ethic and instilling a heart of service in both of us, and by the end of junior high, my brother and I could literally run a service by ourselves with the exception of preaching. Hell, we probably could have done that too, but it never occurred to us.
Through my Sunday morning service, I learned I have a passion for speaking to crowds. Of all my service assignments, the one I looked forward to the most was reading the lessons to the congregants during mass. While many of the other kids were drawing on the bulletin, I was already reading along pointing at the words as they were read. I have to confess, I always corrected the readers (in my head of course!) who misspoke or skipped a line. I also got a little cocky and would judge them based on how many times they said, “uhm” or “like,” and then I learned that having a big ego means the universe gives you a more generous dollop of humility with every judge-y thought, and that’s when I decided to embrace what I would ultimately discover is called classical liberalism as a political stance. I know I’m not perfect, and I don’t want to be judged for every mistake I make, and therefore I must be willing to forgive the mistakes of those around me and be gentle in how I view others’ weaknesses (and my own). Fortunately, I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and my little St Francis is the best when it comes to embracing Jesus’ way and accepting folks from all walks of life.
The most obvious difference between our church and others in the community that I noticed as a young child involves their views on the LGBTQ community, but also their willingness to accept alcoholics, and drug addicts. While most churches seemed to shun congregants who were openly gay, St. Francis didn’t. The politics of the Episcopal Diocese have changed back and forth as politics do, but the people at St. Francis always encouraged an environment of acceptance and loving others as God made them. Now it wasn’t all sunshine and roses all the time, and there were some members who didn’t agree with gay people and made a fuss, but at the end of the day, as a little girl trying to understand the world, I knew my church was loving, accepting, and kind.
Church taught me humility and the value of serving others. It encouraged me to read philosophy and learn about all types of religions, because although parts of the Episcopal faith absolutely appealed to me, others seemed to fall short for me. I wasn’t satisfied with the answers given by the scriptures, priests, and teachers, but they respected my objections and questions and taught me the true value of philosophical dialogue.
As I teenager, I rebelled in a lot of ways, and I felt like I was living a double life: the good church kid I’d always been and this new, wild child who felt misunderstood and didn’t belong. At church on Sundays, I would re-charge for the week, serve as candle-bearer, cross-bearer, reader, or bell-ringer, and I’d contemplate the gospel, inserting my arguments in my head and writing notes and questions on the bulletin, and eating my cookie and drinking lemonade after the service. Almost every Sunday after church, Dad would take us to Schlotzsky’s for a damn good sandwich and a review of what we learned in church that week, what challenges we’re expecting at school this week, and any wins we want to celebrate from last week.
It never occurred to me until now that those were the topics, but my dad’s a clever guy like that. He always made life fun and never wanted us kids to worry about things like money and heartache. This ritual became so important over the years, and when I ran away from home and tried life on my own for the first time, the things I missed most were those weekly rituals that provided comfort, support, and introspection.
Now I find myself creating more and more of those little rituals in my life today. It’s crazy how you feel like you have to run away to find yourself as a kid, and then you spend the next few decades trying to nostalgically recreate your childhood memories. It’s even more bizarre how you spend your early 20’s trying to make your own decisions and not be like your parents, and then you quickly realize the value in the lessons you battled against learning in your teens. Perspective is a tricky thing, and when you can be humble and reflective, it helps you skip past a bunch of the suffering part. I’m grateful for the experiences I had in the church as a young girl, and although I’m not a practicing Episcopalian anymore, I have since studied all the main world religions, taken the pieces I want to apply to my life, and I continue to see philosophical wisdom in the small things every day. Writing is part of my religion, and it’s how I choose to introspect.
I have thought a lot about religion, and these are some truths I’ve discovered that help provide context for living life well and in integrity with yourself and those around you:
All religions that add value to living do these things:
- Teach love. Love heals wounds, grows new amazing life, and it endures all suffering
- Teach introspective thought. Humans are thinking animals, but we have to teach ourselves how to influence our own thoughts, because our thoughts create the reality we live in. When someone is focused on the negative, bad things happening in their lives, and that’s all they dwell on, that’s all they’ll ever experience. Saying that and realizing you’re doing that are two completely different things though, and it’s much harder than it sounds to change your focus and the way your mind thinks. It’s 1 part science, 2 parts spirit. It takes a change in spirit to start the process, then science causes your synapses to reroute, and then it takes daily doses of spiritual goodness to keep your focus in the right place and your mind thinking positively and expansively. Religion is one tool for reshaping your reality by focusing on serving others, learning about the lives of people who helped others, and being in community with others. This isn’t the only way to increase someone’s positive experiences in life, but it has been a popular method since the beginning of humanity, and I believe it’s one reason why every single culture in the history of earth has practiced religion in one form or another. Thinking introspectively forces you to get to know yourself, honestly. It isn’t necessarily a fun process until you’ve accepted all your worst traits and have embraced them as parts of you that make you you, but it’s also absolutely necessary. You don’t get to be your highest, most loving self until you learn to love yourself unconditionally, and that is also easier said than done.
- Recognize Miracles: I believe God ask Yaweh aka Allah aka The Universe or whatever you call Him/Her/It is the spark of life, the thing that makes us all human, the connector piece between all things, and although I don’t understand it, I have felt it when I’m being my authentic self witnessing love, kindness, and sacrifice. This miraculous thing that connects us all spiritually also happens to result in some remarkable sights and events that we can’t explain with science or logic, but they have been recorded; and even if they “didn’t actually happen,” their stories live on in the imaginations of generations of people, and the thought of witnessing a miracle stirs your spirit a little if you let it. I think that’s amazing and wondrous and evidence that there’s more to living life than we may realize–which in turn creates the most powerful thing in this world–hope.