Irreversible Changes

A few days ago I posted about death and the afterlife, but mostly about how it shouldn’t really be the thing which preoccupies our spiritual thoughts.  Spending one’s life focused on what happens after it’s over is like not fully focusing on school because you’re focused on what your job will be like when you graduate.  You end up ill-prepared.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a strange relationship with death.  My father worked for several years as a funeral director, and both of my brothers took grounds-keeping or night guard jobs at the funeral home as teens.  Even when my father went back to preaching, he continued to be a resource for the funeral home whenever a family didn’t have a minister or musician in mind for their service.  I grew up with a white board magnetized to the fridge with a list of “Dad’s Funerals” for the week on it.   Death was a nearly daily event, even if I never really experienced the grief or knew those who passed.  Still, the process of death became just another part of living.  Caskets are chosen, bodies are processed to look nice, people come together to cry and remember and lean on each other, and then they roll sod over the new grave and everyone goes on living.

Because I have such a weird connection to that part of death and grief, I think maybe that part isn’t as important as we make it out to be.  Not that it isn’t important at all.  The ritual of burial and remembrance, the formality of finality, that is an exercise in human emotion.  I do think we need some way to mark the end of a person’s life, the loss of a piece of our own, in a way which makes it easier to let go of.  We have to do something to force us to accept the finality, the reality of loss, or we build a whole life afterwards of delusion and acting.

But after that, when we’ve reached the point of acceptance, the rest of the roadmap of mourning is a journey of adjusting to something missing.  Like this blog post pointed out, the actual process of mourning, of adjusting, means taking a look at the reality of our lives, the reality of our relationships, the reality of ourselves.  When you get a flat tire you can try to keep driving as if it weren’t there, as if the rest of the good tires and the newly changed oil will make up for the missing part, but eventually the car will be undrivable.  

And mourning, most of all, means making changes.  It’s a process of adjustment, not just a process of getting progressively less sad.  We make changes to fill the gaps in our existence.  We find new people to fill the roles of those we’ve lost.  We learn to do things others used to do for us.  It means thinking about the loss, thinking about the person you no longer have with you, not as an ideal but as a reality.  

In the end, the rest of the world, including us, is supposed to go on.  The sun rises and sets, the seasons change, and the demands and joys of life are still out there for us.  And most of all, no matter what we do, death is a change which cannot be reversed.

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In the End

Not too long ago, I was having a discussion with a coworker wherein the conversation led to me mentioning my book and blog.  I had not previously realized that this coworker was a devout Christian, and apparently it had never crossed his mind that I was not.  When I said that I was an atheist, his first question was not at all unusual:

“So, then, what do you think happens after we die?”

I must admit that I find it really strange that, of all the issues which fall under the umbrella of spirituality and religion, of all the complexities of our existence, the part of atheism which strikes so many people as incomprehensible is a lack of belief in an afterlife.  But there it is, over and over again, the reaction of complete confusion and shock that someone can live a meaningful life if they don’t believe there’s any more after it’s over.

For a long time I responded much like that.  I would patiently explain that I didn’t think anything happened, that this life was all we got, and that I therefore preferred to make the most of it.  Those answers, however, make little difference to those who believe otherwise, and while I have no interest in converting anyone to anything I admit those conversations have always left me frustrated.

Recently, however, I found a better answer for the question.  I can say, actually, that I know with absolute certainty at least part of what happens after we die:

The earth keeps spinning on its axis, circling the sun, carrying billions of human occupants.

The sun and moon continue to rise and set, other people and animals and plants and organisms are born and reproduce and die, the seasons continue to occur in succession.

Your coworkers keep working, your family and friends keep living, your belongings still exist, and the things you were responsible for become someone else’s responsibility.

All the things you said and did to other people become part of their memory of you, for better or worse, and some of those memories will have an impact on how they live their lives.

The problems facing the world continue to plague everyone else, and all the things which made you happy continue to make others happy.

In short, life without you goes on.

So why are we so caught up in what happens to us, individually, after we die?  Is it really more important to worry about what afterlife we may or may not have when we could be worrying about the life we’re sharing right now with billions and billions of humans who will continue to exist after we’re gone?  

I Used To Believe…

I used to believe that the reason I had troubles feeling like I belonged, feeling accepted by others, was because the world was flawed and people were too judgmental.

This presumed first of all that I had no impact at all in how others reacted to me, that my view of my interactions with others was not at all distorted.  Second, it presumed that the rest of the world wasn’t like me, that there are actually people in this world who are comfortable with everyone and never need to worry about what other people think of them.  Also, that those people were bad and needed to change.

I used to believe that there was something wrong with me because I could never maintain a habitual spiritual practice or even keep up any kind of daily ritual.

We make a big deal out of people who take time to do yoga every morning when they get out of bed, monks who go through elaborate daily routines of prayer or fasting or silence and never waver or complain, bloggers who manage to post every single day without fail and never have to post the “sorry I got sucked into reality for several weeks” apology.  I have a long, long history of setting myself on a new routine or ritual (diets, fitness routines, praying the rosary every day, intense journaling, meditation, cleaning lists) with some great purpose in mind, and then not maintaining it past a few weeks or months.  And I felt like I’d be a better person, a more functional and productive person, if I could only find the secret to making those routines stick.

I used to believe that my life was somehow not like everyone else’s, that I was missing something, that most other people had things more under control.

It would seem to be so obvious that, in most ways, none of us are that unlike everyone else.  Our personalities may be as unique as snowflakes, but our problems and concerns are not that special.  And maybe it’s because I grew up in the tradition of “everyone is unique” that I grew up to think that my lack of satisfaction with my life and the state of the world was unique as well.  

It doesn’t help that so many spiritual traditions support a mindset of “us against the world”.  If only the faithful have the truth and the rest of the world hates the faithful, then suffering is to be expected.  

But that’s no longer how I view spirituality.  My spiritual life isn’t focused on something outside me, it’s focused squarely on my own spirit.  When I turned my focus inward and started examining the way I thought, the way I felt, the way I reacted to the world around me, so many of my old beliefs began to fall away.  It wasn’t pretty or comfortable, but I began to see the truth of things.

I am not so obviously wonderful a person that I can stand in the midst of a crowd doing nothing and expect anyone to embrace me.  If I want to connect with others, I have to reach out.  I have to give other people a chance to react to me rather than operating on my own flawed predictions about how they will react.  If I want to find a place to fit in, I have to actually go searching.

Attempts at perfection will almost always fall short.  If everyone had the ability to do only good things every day without fail, we wouldn’t revere the ones who manage to pull it off.  And falling short of perfection doesn’t negate the benefits of trying.  Those pursuits we undertake to make our lives better, to elevate our spirits, don’t require flawless execution to work.  

Taken as a whole, we are all special and unique.  But when you break us each down into thoughts and feelings, attributes, interests, problems and successes, none of us stands alone.  

Give Of Yourself

I’m not the most tidy person of all time, but I do believe there is something especially valuable in the ritual of cleaning and decluttering.  I’m not just talking about routine chores like washing dishes or mopping floors, but the deep Spring Clean or complete overhaul of a storage system.  Even someone like me who, to be honest, has little problem navigating piles of clutter feels different when their living space has been freshly cleaned, organized, and purged of unneeded items.

 

Certainly there are spiritual parallels to the process.  Many traditions include rituals meant to cleanse the spirit in some way.  A focus is often placed on finding those thoughts and behaviors within ourselves which cause negative consequences and purging them from ourselves.  And part of the idea of feng shui is that the condition of our environment has a direct impact on our thoughts and actions.  Clearing the spaces around us of clutter and useless objects creates a space more supportive of a focused and positive life.

 

Now, of course, that’s the ideal.  Just like some aspire to daily meditation or prayer or other consistent and lofty spiritual goals.  Those are great.  I’ve never been particularly successful living up to that kind of expectation, but that’s a blog post for another day.  
Still, for those of us who are seeking meaningful ritual with spiritual subtext, a regular ritual of removing things from our physical existence which serve no positive purpose is a simple and meaningful one, especially when combined with the act of donating those things to those who can benefit from them.  Cleansing our own lives and elevating someone else’s in the same action is a ritual with a really profound positive lesson:  just because something isn’t useful to us doesn’t mean it’s worthless to everyone else.  Things aren’t good or bad, they just are.  It’s how we use them that matters.

It’s About What We Do, Not Who We Are

After my post a while back on bullying, I found this excellent blog post  on the topic which I think makes a lot of parallel observations which have broader application.  

First, I agree that the world isn’t divided up between “bullies” and “victims”.  Being a bully isn’t a matter of identity.  Neither is being a victim of bullying.  We do ourselves and those we are trying to help a great disservice by trying to identify what makes someone a bully or what makes someone likely to be targeted.  Approaching the problem from that direction actually makes the problem worse instead of making it better because it reinforces the idea that there are certain traits which are better or worse than others.

For instance, when I was bullied by a teacher as a high school kid, the root of the issue was that I didn’t fit that teacher’s concept of what a member of the group I was in (she was our sponsor) should look and act like.  In short, I was neither cool enough nor popular enough.  She didn’t like me, she didn’t think I belonged there, and I got that message loud and clear.  So the first problem with the way the situation was handled by my mother was that it actually made the apparent divide between cool and popular people and myself even wider.

The message should have been that none of those attributes matter.  Perhaps I’d have felt differently about the situation if my mother had marched into that room and told the teacher in no uncertain terms that she was not justified in treating some team members differently from others for any reason, period.  That’s the message we should have been teaching.  No combination of traits and qualities makes it okay for someone to be treated differently.  And by the same token no combination of traits and qualities makes it okay for someone to treat others differently or demand to be treated differently than others.  Approaching bullying in any other way just widens the divide.  

Consider, for instance, the geek community.  We come together to celebrate all those things we used to be ostracized for, which should be a really positive thing.  And then in the same space where we are gathering in positive solidarity as fandoms and geeks, we turn on each other and bully people for not living up to how we think they should be.  Cosplayers are bullied, fans shame other fans for not knowing everything there is to know about the game/show/film/book/etc or not being fans for the same reasons…  When we focus too hard on labeling people as bullies and bullied, good and bad, we miss the root of the problem entirely.

Second, the blog post makes the same great point about bullying not being a problem people grow out of.  I’ve long said that the worst lesson I had to learn as an adult was that adults aren’t different from kids except in terms of access to resources and influence.  I grew up feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, and everything I was told about getting through my adolescence focused on things getting better as I got older.  I didn’t really put any effort into learning to relate to other kids my age, especially those who I felt didn’t or wouldn’t like me, because I had been taught that it wouldn’t matter.  When we reached the adult world, I was told, all that childish stuff wouldn’t matter and when I made a success of myself I’d have the last laugh.

And then I graduated from college and got a job working with people who acted just like the kids in high school.  There were still rumors, pranks, cliques, and bullying.  It was more subtle, less overt, but equally wrong.  And it came as a really huge shock to me at the time.  I’d put a of stock in the idea that when I got to be an adult my skills and achievements would have more weight with others than my social skills, and that was absolutely and completely backwards.  I ended up having to learn how to make friends as an adult when I really should have learned that as a kid.  And that’s what happens when we teach kids that it doesn’t matter what others do to us, that it doesn’t matter what happens to us at the hands of other kids, that the adult world is some magically different place.  I was taught that petty bullies would grow up to get some kind of karmic retribution and I’d be vindicated, but that was the worst thing I could have been taught.

The linked post goes on to boil everything down to our reaction and contribution to behaviors, especially teasing and other behaviors we might intend to be funny, which create unsafe spaces for others and normalize bullying.  Becoming a better person doesn’t mean only poking fun at and humiliating those who “deserve it”.  Becoming a better person means realizing it’s never okay to make someone feel like it’s not okay to be different.  It’s those acts — the things we do to make others feel like unacceptable or different — which are the problem.