Like a Moth to a Flame

When I was a kid, I was scared of fire.  I was so scared of fire that I got nervous about birthday cakes.  I was afraid someone would get a sleeve or their hair too close to the candles and go up in flames.  The single most terrifying place for me to be was in the middle of a candlelight service with all sorts of people holding candles close to other people and flammable objects.  The furnace at home made me nervous because you could see the flames inside, just burning there inside a little metal box in the wall and powered by explosive gas.  

I just knew that anywhere there was fire, anywhere there was the potential for a spark, there was also the potential for a deadly inferno.  Just one too many minutes without supervision, one careless movement, could be catastrophic.  I imagined that the tiniest spark could become a blaze in seconds, that as soon as the flame came close to something flammable it would combust so fast nobody would be able to stop it.  

The funny thing about fear, though, is that it also breeds fascination.  The more scared I was of fire, the more I thought about it.  The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help thinking about it.  I saw the potential for danger in more and more situations.  I obsessed over it.

And then something shifted in my thinking.  You can’t go your whole life without handling fire in some form:  cooking, lighting a candle, turning on a heater.  And as I found myself creating and using fire myself I realized that as long as I was controlling the flame, holding the lighter, managing the stove burner, I was fine.  It wasn’t the fire I didn’t trust.  It was the ability of other people to control it.

It’s much easier to admit that you’re scared of an object, a phenomenon, an ideology, than it is to admit that you’re scared of the people around you.  It sits easier in the mind to focus your fear on something inanimate.  That way we can comfortably use words like “destroy” and “contain” and “control” rather than “kill” and “imprison” and “oppress”.  

As long as I could focus my fear on the fire, I didn’t have to face the people around me and tell them I didn’t trust them not to hurt me.  To admit your fear to others is to admit that you are vulnerable.  To admit to others that you fear them is to give them power over you.  

But I could have spent my whole life avoiding fire, fireproofing my surroundings, hoarding extinguishers and surrounding myself with smoke detectors, and it would never have changed the fact that I was really scared of the rest of humanity.  That fear of others gave everyone else power over me whether I admitted or understood that fear or not.  

Ultimately, I got over my fear, and I didn’t do it by trying to make it impossible for me to ever get burned.  I didn’t do it by convincing myself that fire couldn’t harm me or wasn’t potentially dangerous.  I got over my fear the day I realized that my fear wasn’t protecting me from anything.  It was only making me more fearful, more vulnerable.  

There’s No GPS to Get You to Heaven

I’ve often tried to explain or write down in detail the steps in my life which have brought me to my current set of beliefs.  The difficulty lies not only in defining exactly what my beliefs are at the current moment (at least in terms which are meaningful to anyone but myself), but also in figuring out the points of transition along the way to this point.  

In very broad terms, it’s been several decades of questioning.  First, those questions were not so much of a spiritual nature.  I began by questioning whether what I experienced first hand in the world agreed with the picture of the world my parents had painted for me growing up, and found little similarity.  Issues were not as simple.  People could not be sorted into neat categories as I’d been taught.  I saw shades of gray where I expected black and white.  I learned that things I’d been taught to fear were not nearly as threatening as I’d been told.

And from there, everything unraveled.

But the path from the beliefs of my childhood to the beliefs I now hold can’t be described as a neat path from point A to point B.  One revelation or epiphany doesn’t lead neatly into the next.  I only know that the journey started with a question, the investigation of a skeptical thought, and that now I’m somewhere in the middle of that journey.  My beliefs are more about the process, the practice, the theory of what spirituality means and entails rather than about truth and knowledge.  

That’s why I decided to write a book.  I am fairly sure that the process of researching and writing will move me farther along the path than any of my previous unguided wanderings.  If I keep asking questions, I’ll keep finding more questions, and eventually I might start turning up hard answers.  Or maybe not.  I’m not sure if I believe hard answers exist.

But, as they say, traveling is about the journey, not the destination.  Perhaps we would all get more out of our spiritual lives if we treated them as the journeys they are and worry about the destination later.

“What’s stopping you?  (That’s right.  Nothing.)”

Well, probably not nothing.  It’s likely some amount of fear, which can mean there are actual risks involved with whatever it is you’re considering.  

Or maybe you’re being held back by actual constraints like legal restrictions.

Perhaps you’re facing systemic inequality which makes it exponentially harder for you to gain the required access or resources than for most people.

It could be that you’ve already committed the necessary resources to some other pursuit, and your prior choice made this other goal less of a priority. 

Maybe you still need to develop some necessary skills before pursuing your goal.  

Maybe you are in some way incapable.  We can’t all do everything.

Maybe deep down inside, you don’t really want to do this.  

Or maybe there’s nothing stopping you, and all you needed was a lovely picture of some mountains to remind you of that.

In Defense of Holiday Shopping as a Spiritual Practice

It strikes me as funny that there is so much pseudo-religious fury over stores not properly expressing Christian beliefs.  When I was a kid I remember people being up in arms about greed and materialism drowning out the religious message of the season.  Religious parents used to worry that buying gifts for their kids made the holiday about greed.  Now apparently greed is good, but only if it’s decorated properly and comes with the proper greeting.  

Or something like that.

Personally, I think everyone has missed the point altogether.  Or at least what the point of gift giving could be, if we just stopped making it complicated.

Despite technically being an atheist for quite a while now, I’ve continued to very much enjoy Christmas.  Or, as I’ve started calling the last few years, Giftmas.  I love decorating and cooking and holiday music and, most of all, shopping for gifts for family and friends.  I spend a lot of time and energy searching for the perfect things which I think will make people really excited.  

And that, right there, is the point.

Holidays in the general sense aren’t supposed to be an excuse to bully other people into sharing your worldview.  They aren’t supposed to be about what you feel or what you want.  Holidays are to be celebrated with others.  They are supposed to bring people together in ways that breed connection and feelings of unity.  And what better way to do that than to spend a whole month focused on giving people things that will excite them and surprise them?  A whole month spent thinking about what everyone around you likes and values.  A whole month where you willingly make sacrifices from your own bank account to make other people happy.

Who isn’t excited to watch friends and loved ones open gifts which we know will make their faces light up in delight?  I dare say there is more meaning and connection in that tradition than most of the other things we do to celebrate various holidays.  There aren’t many rituals in our culture which turn everyone’s focus towards how to bring joy to the people they care about.  

So while others are throwing away their joy in exchange for righteous fury this holiday season, I’ll be using my Amazon Prime account to make my world a happier place.

For Your Mind Only

When I graduated from college and moved out on my own, my parents expressed more concern about whether I’d found a church than whether I’d found a job.  That’s not to say that they didn’t think employment was important.  I assume that they were concerned that I might not consider my religious life a priority.

And, to be honest, they were correct.

Still, despite the fact that I didn’t feel particularly compelled to find a church to attend, I knew they would continue to put pressure on me as long as I resisted.  I didn’t want to go to a church like theirs, the one I’d grown up in.  If I had to go to church, I wanted to find one on my own terms.  

Ultimately, that’s how I ended up Catholic.

But in the long run it didn’t stick.  I only found marginally more satisfaction and meaning there than I had in the Protestant church I grew up in.  

For most of my life, my entire spiritual path had to do with what others expected me to do and believe.  In many ways, that was the entire point of the religion I grew up in.  Do what god wants, what your parents want, what your church wants, because obedience is essentially the most important virtue of all.  After all, the fall of humanity was caused by disobedience.  Obedience, then, is how you redeem yourself.  

Obedience is not, however, a step on the path towards meaning.  For those of us who want to find something fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful in our lives, the way to get there cannot start by doing what others tell you to do.  This is why there are so many religions, so many traditions in the world.  One way, one method will not work for everyone.  If we all conform to the same routine and the same expectations, the vast majority will become dissatisfied and disillusioned and look for another way.  

More and more of us are looking for that other way outside established traditions.  I am not alone in deciding that real meaning, real spiritual growth must be found by looking for inspiration and guidance and wisdom in all parts of life, all ways of thinking, all types of experiences rather than by following what someone else claims to be The Way.  That is exactly the point of this blog, my writing projects, and my spiritual life as a whole.  I don’t have truth to offer, only insight.  I think that by sharing our thoughts and thinking deeply about the lives we live, we will all experience something closer to truth in each moment that passes.