Wednesday, September 1, 2010
"My friend Kelly says that when she listens to the news she hears so much conflicting information she can't truly reach a conclusion about anything. Usually we see this as a problem. Our inability to reach conclusions makes us feel ignorant and helpless. We feel pressured to sort it all out.
But think about this: maybe experiencing complexity brings us closer to reality than does thinking we've actually figured things out."--Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, from The Power of an Open Question
I'm having my friendly visit with Linda, the older woman who is disabled and lives alone. We have just settled into the "comfortable chairs"--two big, green, puffy chairs that you sink into when you sit down. We're talking about religion. I had discovered several visits ago that I could talk religion with Linda and not worry about offending her. I'm agnostic, and though she believes in God, she hasn't found a religion that's stuck.
Not that she hasn't tried. Years ago she converted from Christianity to Judaism. The town we live in is home to many Jewish people--in fact, at the end of my street you can find a kosher grocery store, several delis, a Jewish giftshop, a bookshop, and several Asian restaurants.
Linda became an official Jew, but her hard work did not translate into instant acceptance. She perceived the other members of the synagogue did not accept her as Jewish. She felt slighted by her rabbi. She was way past the age for a Bat Mitzvah.
So she quit Judaism and became Episcopalian. Christianity she understood. Once a month a member of the clergy would visit her apartment to give her communion, a bonus because it meant that she could count on another visitor to come regularly. She gets lonely a lot.
But right around the time I started visiting her, she was complaining about the priest. "She left her communion box here and now she won't pick it up! She says she's transferring to a different church. What am I going to do with this--I can't throw it away, it's sacred." I wondered why she didn't just store her keys in it, or some throat lozenges.
And then there was the time she called the church to offer them a desk chair to give to a family in need. They picked it up, but when she called them later to see if the chair had found a home, no one seemed to know where it went.
"It was a good chair," she assured me. "And now they don't know where it is? I should have kept the darn thing." I looked around her small apartment. If there was one thing the place was not lacking, it was chairs. She had enough seating for a Thanksgiving Day service for twelve.
The final straw was when they lost her monthly donation check for $10. She was on the phone for hours trying to find out who had the check and why hadn't they cashed it yet? "It's been two weeks!" she told me. "And the woman who answered the phone was so nasty and dismissive. She told me the priest might have it somewhere on her desk and then she cut me off. For all I know she's using my check as a bookmark."
Not only did the Episcopalians lose $10, they also lost Linda. She had the communion box sent by cab to the church (this part I could not picture. Did she hail a cab, place the box on the backseat, then slam the door and pay the driver for a one-way ride? Was she so angry and dejected that she couldn't bring herself to accompany the box?)
From there she joined the Baha'i faith. They too misplaced her donation check, but she stayed with them because she had made a friend in the community who visited her and took her out to buy New Balance sneakers and sheets from IKEA. They also prayed together, and Linda found the Baha'i prayers comforting.
But it was only a matter of time before she was questioning her chosen faith again. "What happens when I die and my brothers have to plan my funeral? They're not going to say Baha'i prayers! They won't know what to do. No, I should go back to Christianity--it'll make the funeral go much more smoothly."
I told her that if the Baha'i prayers were comforting, she should continue to say them. But now she had a conflict. She had recently joined the Church of the Nazarene because she heard they had great prayer groups. She was excited to report to me that two members of the church had already visited her and brought flowers and Nazarene paperwork. But then her mood darkened, and she said, "I did call one of the ladies after their visit, to invite her to come over again, but she said she was going to be busy all of September. She wasn't as nice on the phone as she was when she was here."
"Can I stay a Baha'i and also be a member of the Nazarenes?" she asked. "What if my Baha'i friend finds out? She'll stop visiting me." So long, afternoons at IKEA.
Then she paused and said, "Am I just being wishy-washy? Shouldn't I just pick a religion and stick to it?"
I was taken off guard by her sudden insight. I often think that my agnosticism is wishy-washy. I was brought up Catholic, but dropped out after my confirmation party at Bennigan's (perhaps the ubiquity of shiny things on the walls had me hypnotized, but more likely it was because I was turning into a sullen teenager who believed in mopey rock stars rather than a faceless God.) Since then I've been back to church for weddings, funerals, and the occasional Christmas mass, but it's always in respect for other family members. I no longer feel that I fit in there, even if I can "pass" because I remember all the words to The Lord's Prayer. When I'm in church I never know if I should go up and receive communion, and feel guilty when I remain in the pews while everyone around me starts lining up. Would they stare at me with slits for eyes and think, look at that naughty girl! Does she think she's too good to accept the body of Christ? Then again, maybe I'm projecting some apparently unresolved guilt about abandoning my childhood faith.
The more I read Buddhist books, though, the more I'm convinced that it's OK not to be a member of any tribe, not to choose a side, not to reject one faith for another. I do admire people who have the comfort of faith and religion--not to mention a ready-made set of friends who'll bake them a pie when they're sick. After all, what comfort can I take from Buddhist philosophy? Life is suffering and then you die?
I'm joking, of course. I realize Buddhism, like any philosophy or religion, is complex. Not knowing is scary, but for some people it feels more honest to question than to pick a side and stick with it for life. Things change, people change, the world is complicated and there are many opinions on what's right and wrong. It can take a lifetime to even skim the surface of the mysteries of the universe. Being uncertain but staying open to possibilities--that's the only way I see myself living right now.
Linda is also searching, but for her there's the added element of giddy anticipation--like starting a new class and buying the textbook and pencils. You haven't read through the book yet, but it's exciting just to imagine what you'll learn. Never mind the serious work of actually studying and retaining knowledge. The promise of a new way of life, new friends, a new set of beliefs...that's enough for her.
Until that check doesn't clear.