Monday, July 12, 2021

On Suffering, Despair, and a Long-Shot Hope

I've been wrestling with some kind of physiological and/or neurological ailment ever since I was in my late teens. It used to consist mostly of panic attacks and insomnia, but it has manifested itself in increasingly physical ways as I get older. 

No doctor has ever been able to tell me what exactly is wrong. I even took three months off work a few years back, during a particularly severe flare-up, to try to get to the bottom of it all. But after being bounced around from doctor to doctor and specialist to specialist, and after undergoing any number of blood panels, CT scans, brain scans, and other invasive procedures, no one could tell me what was wrong. Something is clearly amiss -- even the "experts" agree on that -- but I don't seem to match up with anyone's university textbook definition of a clearly defined illness, and Western medicine appears unable to think outside the box for an answer.  

Now in the midst of another flare-up, I'm doing my best to hold things together. But as I've been devoting most of my free time to immersing myself in studying religion, spirituality, and philosophy, my current bout inevitably stirs up memories of my first significant episode, and how it shaped my relationship with religion.

My adoptive parents were Catholic converts, but Mom especially had an evangelical streak that she could never break. She'd watch preachers on the local religious channel, serving up fiery sermons as they stomped around and yelled, prowling the stage of their megachurches, microphone in one hand and Bible in the other, railing about the atheists and the homosexuals and, yes, the Catholics, and how everybody needed to repent and hear the true gospel before Jesus came back to take all the faithful to heaven. 

I never understood that kind of worship. I only ever found it chaotic and neve-racking, with a wild emotionalism that felt deeply at odds with the calm, ordered, structured, mature, thoughtful rationality of the Catholic Mass. I always felt comforted within the Catholic rituals and traditions, the beautiful architecture, the music, the candles and incense, the statues and stained glass, the organ and choir, the predictable rhythms of the yearly church calendar, all of it. 

I always had trouble taking the teachings on a literal level, and I had a never-ending litany of questions about what we were expected to believe, yet there was something deep and meaningful underlying it all that always drew me back. I was rescued from an abusive bio-mother, and that abuse left its marks -- mentally more than physically -- and I think that the church offered me a place where I could go to make sense of everything and feel as if everything was going to be OK, because someone out there might just care about what I'd gone through. No one used the term "safe space" back in the '70s and '80s, but that's pretty much what church was for me. Mary, in particular, was the mother of unconditional love that I never felt I had. She was my beacon of hope through some pretty hard times.

So fast-forward to my late teens -- I think around age 17 -- when my childhood anxieties blew up into raging panic attacks, completely out of context from any immediate threat. I'd get dizzy and disoriented, my vision would blur, I'd experience brain fog, I couldn't sleep, and my head felt like it was going to explode. I truly thought I was going to die. The attacks sometimes went on for weeks. I'd never know when another one would hit me, but they always came back. 

Even back then, doctors could offer me few answers. One genius physician decided my dizziness was the result of an ear infection and flushed the wax out of my ears. Naturally, it didn't help any of the other challenges I was facing. The most I ever got from doctors were best guesses, pills, a referral to a shrink, and advice on how to breathe and relax. But all those things ever did was lessen the symptoms I experienced during a flare-up. They didn't treat the underlying cause, whatever it was. 

My adoptive dad was a believer in healing through the laying on of hands. Our hometown church had a "charismatic" (as they called it) prayer meeting in the church basement once a week, with people speaking in tongues as they gathered to pray over the sick. My dad and my godfather both attended every week, and they both engaged in the glossolalia that always left me feeling rather uneasy. But if people could be healed of their ailments, I eventually figured I'd put aside my unease and go along with the program in hopes of a miracle. So I asked Dad and my godfather to pray over me. They did, and nothing happened.

My mom, meanwhile, was little help, mostly telling me to snap out of it while guilt-tripping me for not having enough faith.

I can't remember how old I was when I found myself alone in the living room with the TV tuned to the religious channel my mom liked watching so much. There was a pastor on the screen, telling his viewers that God was giving him word of healings that were happening even as he spoke. We, his viewers, could all be healed, too, he claimed. He said to put our hands against his on the screen and to pray with him. That was during a particulary bad bout, and I can vividly remember being on my knees, sobbing, feeling broken, and begging for God to help me and heal me. 

And again, nothing happened.

Meanwhile, I'd watch these revival meetings where the pastor, acting ostensibly as a conduit for the divine, would make people seeking a miracle crumple lifeless to the floor after he touched their foreheads. They'd regain consciousness and jump for joy as they tossed away their hearing aids and wheelchairs, healed by the Lord, their bodies renewed. And all I could ever wonder is why the Lord wouldn't heal me. Didn't Jesus say "Ask and you shall receive"? Didn't he and the apostles heal people in need? So why not me? Hadn't I suffered enough from my early childhood abuse? Why did I have to carry this physical-slash-neurological affliction on top of everything else? 

No one could answer me. All I ever got from Mom was the implication that it was my own fault for not having enough faith. All I ever got from the clergy were unsatisfactory answers about why an all-loving, all-powerful God could stop suffering but doesn't.

I eventually put my beliefs away and drifted off into Buddhism, which at least has an official doctrine of why suffering exists. No special pleading for a God who doesn't help; no hand-waving excuses that "God works in mysterious ways." No, Buddhism simply says that we suffer because of our desire for things to be other than what they are. The world is what it is, and if you've tried and failed to improve your situation, then the only thing left is to deal with the hand you've been dealt. 

That's a hard slap of reality to be sure, but at the time it offered a certain kind of cold comfort. To me, it seemed to beat the wishful thinking of pretending there's a God out there who actually gives a shit about you and your suffering. After all, if he doesn't stop war, famine, disease, natural disasters, abuse, rape, or murder, then why would he care about my problems?

Buddhism's cure for suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path of skillful, compassionate living -- essentially coming to peace with your lot by meeting the world with loving-kindness, with the knowledge that all other people are suffering in their own ways right along with you. There's just one catch (there's always a catch, isn't there?): Your karma might drag you into another existence after this life is over. The only way to get off the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth is to live such a life of equanimity that you finally burn off your karmic debts and retire to the eternal peace of Nirvana.

I have to take a moment here, because I know someone will raise an objection, to acknowledge that Buddhism technically doesn't teach reincarnation like the Hindus do, since reincarnation presupposes the existence of a soul and Buddhism denies that souls exist. But whether your soul is reborn or your karma is, you still have to come back for another round. To some extent, it's a distinction without a difference.

Either way, the concept of rebirth just sounds like a nightmare to me. I don't want to suffer through another life of so much physical misery. One is enough. But I'm nowhere near enlightenment, so for me it would almost be a sure thing that I'd have to come back and do this all over again. No, thanks. 

And I'm not alone in feeling this way. In fact, this is precisely why Pure Land Buddhism holds an appeal for so many in the East. For those in the Pure Land tradition, all you have to do is call on Amithaba Buddha at the time of death, and he'll take you to his heavenly realm, where you can burn off your karma in peace. It's strikingly similar to sola fide Christianity in that regard. Some snarkily call it "stop-trying Buddhism" because it puts no pressure on the practitioner to have to work toward enlightenment in this life -- a goal that might be easy for secluded monks but not so much for normal people with jobs and everyday responsibilities.

But being a Pure Land Buddhist isn't easy if you aren't Japanese. I've been to a Pure Land service, when I lived in Seattle, and while the people were kind and welcoming, it was quite clear that I'd never fit into the Japanese culture that the temple's members were explicitly attempting to protect and preserve. I don't blame the Japanese for doing that at all. If my temple had been shut down during World War II and I was shipped off to a prison camp merely for being Japanese, I imagine I'd want to guard my culture and traditions when I was allowed to come back. 

My last stop in Buddhism was at a Shingon temple, also in Seattle. The priest, a lovely Japanese man married to an American woman, wanted to build an "international" temple that was welcoming to people of all backgrounds, not just Japanese-Americans. I appreciated that, but in the end I still felt as if I was intruding on someting that didn't belong to me. And I don't think I was alone, in that I saw plenty of white Americans coming and going during my time there, while the older Japanese-American folks were the only ones you could count on to be at the services faithfully, week in and week out. 

Having gone through the experience of visiting Buddhist temples that were built by and intended for those of Japanese ancestry, I got a feel for what Buddhism is really like in its original Eastern context. It's nothing like the Western Buddhism that has been stripped down to a kind of meditation-based self-help psychology. The upper-middle-class left-leaning suburban white people who tend to populate Western Buddhism are fond of saying that Buddhism isn't a religion -- and they're sort of right that their Buddhism isn't, but the thing is, their Buddhism has only a tenuous connection to the very religious way Buddhism is celebrated by and large in the East. 

I can't say I blame them for reimagining Buddhism, as I'm not convinced that Buddhism is capable of translating very well in its native forms to the Western world. Zen, which by its nature is severely austere and minimalist, and therefore resistant to most cultural accumulations, may be the exception -- but it would arguably be the only one. Either way, Buddhism ended up being something of a dead-end for me. I took some useful things from the experience but chose to move on.

Since then, I've bounced around from one religious philosophy to another, trying to find a place that feels like home. I continue to find appeal in Taoism, but its foreignness makes it hard for me to warm up to it, in the same way I struggled to fit in with the Buddhist path, and sometimes it feels as if its simple philosophy of harmonizing with the way of nature is just too simple to serve as a substantial spiritual foundation.

But that's on me, and not on Taoism. To its credit, the Tao Te Ching doesn't expect you to put your brain on hold and accept all manner of exotic dogma and harsh commandments in exchange for some kind of eternal reward. It just helps you live a quiet, harmonious life. Religious Taoism does exist, but it's so innately Chinese that it could never have any cultural relevance to the average Westerner.

Meanwhile, the tradition I was brought up in continues to hold some kind of draw for me, and I struggle to understand why. I don't believe in any of the teachings on a literal level, and I find the God of the Abrahamic religions both logically impossible and morally reprehensible, often acting with more evil intent than Satan himself. 

I also find it repugnant that so many believers are so obsessed with sin and think of humans as nothing but irredeemable piles of shit -- Luther, perpetually drowning in his own self-loathing neuroses, literally likened humans to dunghills -- insisting that we all deserve eternal torment and that our intellectual assent to believing in an atoning human sacrifice is our only way out. It's such a negative and anti-human view that it almost takes one's breath away to truly confront it.

Let's consider a few problematic points about Christianity as it's understood by most in the West.

First off, God, being all-knowing, always knew from the beginning of time that Adam and Eve would sin. So why create them in the first place, when he knew they'd fail? He just set them up to stumble. Which can only mean that he enjoys inflicting suffering on his creation.

You don't get it, I hear you saying. He made us to serve and worship him.

Why would a perfect being need someone to serve and worship him? 

He loves us and wants a relationship with us!

Then why does he demand our unquestioning subservience and obedience? Why does he toss us in hell forever for merely failing to obey him? "Love me or burn" is not a relationship. It's the threat of a psychopath.

We have to have the freedom to resist him. He gave us free will so we wouldn't be robots!

Free will is an illusion if an all-knowing God knows every choice you'll ever make before you even make it. You never had a choice if he always knew what you were going to do. Why do you think the Calvinists always talk about predestination? 

But those who believe in his son are guaranteed everlasting life!

Why does it have to be conditional on a human sacrifice? 

Because God needed someone to pour his wrath upon. God is so holy that he can't look upon sin. But by sacrificing his son, we can cover our sins with his atoning blood.

Why is God so hung up on bloody sacrifices? In the Old Testament it was innocent animals. In the New Testament, it's Jesus. Being all-powerful, he could have just forgiven us with a snap of his fingers. 

His ways are not our ways.

No, definitely not. I don't tell people not to kill and then turn around and order mass genocides. I don't tell marauding armies to keep the virgins for themselves, to dash babies against the rocks, or to rip open the bellies of pregnant women. I also don't flood the entire world, animals and children included, because humans did exactly what I foresaw they would do before I even created them.

Do you want to face God's justice too? What does it cost you to just believe?

I don't believe things just to avoid being punished. 

But the Bible says...

The Bible is an ancient collection of stories, some contradictory, and many of them violent and atrocious, written by primitive people who needed explanations for a world they didn't understand, and a god who could beat up the other tribe's god. The stories do express certain universal truths to us from across the ages, but taking the stories only at literal face value misses the point of what they're trying to tell us and forces you to believe in absurdities and reject objective facts about the world. Just ask Galileo.

They're not just stories! God literally created the earth in six days. Evolution is a lie!

And on and on it goes. 

The way I see it, you can express your faith in one of two ways: through love of neighbor, or through fear of punishment. And the more believers I encounter, the more it seems that they choose the latter. Their religion is little more than fire insurance. (Side note: Why am I supposed to be scared of the threat of hellfire when the nervous system in my meatsuit will be dead? I never quite got that.) 

These are the self-proclaimed torch-bearers of Christianity who ignore Jesus' call to lovingly follow in his footsteps and instead quote-bomb Paul, a man who never met Jesus and never says a word about Jesus' life or teachings, to remind us that women should sit down, cover their heads, and shut up, and that gay people will never inherit the kingdom of God. 

But at the same time, they say that all you need to get your free ticket to heaven is to say you believe in Jesus. That's it. Nothing else. Despite the entire Sermon on the Mount, despite the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, you don't actually have to lift a finger to ever help anyone, love your neighbor and your enemy, turn the other cheek, do unto others, or care for the poor. What do you think this is, some kind of works-based salvation? Be as rotten as you want to, even if you're the only face of Jesus others will ever see. None of it matters, because your ticket to heaven is punched and irrevocable. Who cares about anything or anyone else?

Ranting aside, let's be honest: The story of Christianity, if you're expected to take it literally, makes no sense whatsoever. It may have made sense when humans believed the earth was at the center of the universe and God accordingly had a special interest in this planet. But now that we know that Earth is just one of trillions of planets, not even at the center of its own galaxy, which itself is one of trillions of galaxies, it defies all logic to think that the God of this incomprehensibly vast universe would give two craps about one insignificant little blue dot in the middle of nowhere, a grain of sand in a vast cosmic desert -- and then that he would show favoritism to one particular tribe on this insignificant planet, and then that he would micromanage the dietary, sartorial, and sexual habits of the people of this one particular tribe. 

"God gets quite irate."
This God did a passable job as a local tribal deity of storms and war, but I think it's safe to say he wasn't cut out for his promotion to god of the entire universe. And, of course, the blame for that falls not on an ancient Jewish conception of God, because you really couldn't expect anything more from a primitive warrior tribe, but rather on those who continue to insist on taking these ancient stories completely literally, and then demanding that everyone else believe exactly the same way. As such, I don't "hate" God, as I'm sure any fundamentalist reading these words would claim, but rather I reject both the fundamentalists' particular concept and interpretation of God, and their insitence that I and everyone else share their viewpoint of, and unquestioning obedience to, their concept and interpretation of God.

And despite all that, here I am, suffering through another rather severe bout of my lifelong mystery illness, an illness that the God of love has chosen to ignore, and against all logic and common sense I still feel a pull back to the religious tradition I was raised in. Am I that stupid? What the hell is wrong with me?

The only thing I can figure is that we all crave comfort, safety, and familiarity in times of stress. If church was my safe space when I was a kid, an oasis of calm and beauty where I could at least pretend something greater knew about me and cared about me, maybe I'm craving that again as an adult. Not only has the outside world gone mad, but when I've lived in constant pain and discomfort for the past four or five years, maybe I just need to hold out hope, however slight, that something really is out there that cares, and that maybe it cares enough to one day bring me relief from my unrelenting suffering. Obviously, wishing doesn't make it so, but you can't blame someone for trying, especially when all else has failed.

What's more, the figure and story of Jesus continues to hold tremendous appeal. There's a reason it has endured. The idea that the God of the entire universe would love us so much that he would choose to put on human flesh and humble himself, by entering into the world to suffer for our sake, has life-changing power. There's a reason they call it the greatest story ever told. It's incredibly compelling, even if not a lick of it is literally true. 

Yes, I've repeatedly used the word story here, and that was a deliberate choice. My wife, a fiction writer, would argue that humans need stories, and I think she's right. In our materialistic and coldly scientific world, we ignore the deep truths embedded in fiction, myths, and legends, discarding them as useless tall tales of a bygone age, not realizing that doing so cuts us off from stories that help us navigate the world. 

After all, we humans are more than just a temporary collection of atoms, bones, flesh, and blood, no matter how much a scientist might try to deconstruct us that way. We are living, breathing creatures with curiosity and emotions and social impulses and physiological needs. Moreover, we have a consciousness that makes us aware of our existence and our mortality, and as such we have a desire to make sense of the universe and our place in it. Philosophies and religions both seek to grapple with the Big Questions, and just because a certain religious system might be embedded in outdated notions of the physical world and makes certain extraordinary claims, that doesn't mean it has nothing useful to teach us.

Protestant theologian Rob Bell once made a good point that the modern world misses the point of religious stories from both sides. Funadamentalists, for example, will insist that you believe that Jonah literally lived inside a giant fish for three days, while materialist atheists will scoff at those who can still believe in such ancient fables. All the while, we miss whatever deeper meaning the story is trying to get across. 

Our culture seems to struggle with metaphor and symbolism in general, and we perhaps see it nowhere more than in the interpretation of religious writings.

Another way of stating it is that while there may be no way to verify religious beliefs on a literal level, they still convey truths on a metaphorical level. Here's Bret Weinstein:

And so we find we can point to constructive reasons to hold to our religious beliefs -- reasons that transcend the fundamentalist impulse to try to impose a rigidly literal religious viewpoint on the world. Jung, in fact, would go a step further and suggest that the religious impulse serves a universal human psychological need. Materialists, who in many ways are merely the mirror image of religious fundamentalists in their exclusive worship of what can be observed, measured, and weighed, have neglected to take this into account when they reduce human beings to a collection of biological processes. They accept the human but disregard the humanity, what it actually means to be human. They thus promote a worldview that's rationally watertight but lacks any inherent meaning. That view of the world has the potential to be every bit as harmful and destructive as the fundamentalist religious view of the world.

I suppose that search for balance -- delving into religious traditions for truths about the human condition, without having to check one's brain at the door -- is one thing that keeps me coming back to the spiritual world. As far as the story of Christ goes, I'm always drawn in by three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus delivered what I believe is far and away the greatest moral and ethical code ever expressed, in the Sermon on the Mount. If we all lived by its words, this planet would virtually be a paradise. It's all enough to make you overlook the horrendous atrocities of the Old Testament God. 

What's more, the suffering of Jesus, when understood in the context of Christ as the incarnation of God, helps give meaning to my own suffering. No one will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to me why an all-powerful, all-loving God would allow so much suffering in his creation, but at least our human suffering seems to take on some relevance in the sense that Christ, God incarnate, suffers alongside us. Conversely, his willingness to submit himself to great suffering gives us the courage to push through our own suffering in imitation of him. In this sense, suffering can be redemptive, like a cleansing fire. 

The old pre-Reformation churches get this. As Jordan Peterson once said, the driving view of the Orthodox church is to "pick up your damn cross and stumble up the hill," as that is the only road to theosis -- i.e., "becoming by grace what God is by nature."

That view actually gives meaning to being a Christian, rather than the empty and childish evangelical idea that you should love God and accept Jesus just so you don't go to hell, and that the only chance you have of getting into heaven is to drown the shit that you are in sacrificial blood so that our wrathful God can even bear to look at you. The Orthodox conception of Christ and Christianity gives us something to strive toward, rather than something we simply need to accept if we want to avoid eternal punishment. 

Accordingly, in Orthodoxy, the concept of sin is seen as an illness of the soul, with the church acting as a spiritual hospital and God as the merciful divine physician; where in the legalistic Western church, sin is a moral failure worthy of condemnation by a vengeful cosmic judge, with the church representing God's courtroom. This is why, if I ever do make my way back to the church, it will most certainly be to the Orthodox church. 

Then there's the matter of Jesus' mom. Mary has been a constant throughout my religious and spiritual life, even when I was as far away from Christianity as I could have been. Like I said before, she's the mom I never had, and for me that makes her a powerful symbol. My attraction to the Sacred Feminine also puts her in a place of prime importance in my theological worldview. An all-male conception of the divine puts both our spiritual and material worlds out of balance and has done real-world harm to women for millennia. 

Protestants either ignore or denigrate Mary, but I think she's essential to a Judeo-Christian view of the world. I look at it this way: As Jesus is the incarnation of the Father, the Word made flesh, so Mary is an embodiment of the Mother, Sophia, the Wisdom of God. The pre-Vatican II Catholic church took criticism for essentially handing the role of the Holy Spirit over to Mary -- but the thing no one ever says is that there was never anything wrong with giving her that role, inasmuch as Sophia is another name for the Holy Spirit, and that Sophia came to Earth in the person of the Immaculate Virgin. In her many apparitions to the faithful over the centuries, she continues to fulfill the role of Paraclete, the Comforter that Jesus promised to send after his departure from Earth. What greater comforter than a mother?

But of course, that's a heretical view, so I could never express it out loud in a church. What I can do is put myself close to her, in a church tradition that continues to at least honor her place as the Theotokos, Mother of God. If that's the best I can do, if it's one of the only things I can salvage from Christianity, so be it. I can see myself holding privately to Taoist philosophy, while taking what meaning I can from the religion of my youth, where I can follow the example of Christ, hold out hope for a health miracle, and take refuge in the compassionate arms of Mother Mary.

Sometimes I wish I could turn off my brain and be as uncritical and unreflective as most people are about their beliefs. But I can't, and I've never been able to. Part of me also wishes that I could just hang up this religious impulse and deal with the world as it is, without the need of a security blanket. But I'm not even sure that going down that road is healthy for humanity, as I think we need a balance between a scientific understanding of the world and something that speaks to the human condition in a meaningful way. 

And besides, when your health is perpetually fucked up and the world has gone to hell, sometimes you just need that hope of a divine lifeline. It may never come, and it may not even exist. But holding out for the possibility that it might be there helps make an existence of unrelenting misery seem just a little more tolerable. 

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