It’s My Party…

When we want to know about someone’s spiritual beliefs, we most often ask them exactly that:  What do you believe?  But that question can be so difficult to answer sometimes, and we’ve seemingly settled on a two-prong approach (here’s a summary of dogma, and here’s what that means is wrong with the world) which doesn’t actually give much insight.

What if, instead of asking for a statement of belief, we asked people what they celebrate?  What’s important to them?  How do they celebrate those important things?  And not just the traditional celebrations or the ones you make a big fuss over.  If we look at the things which make people stop and mark a moment it says a lot about what is truly important.

What things are so important that you take time off work?  What is cause for a big feast or the giving of gifts?  When do you invite people to spend time with you?  What things make you willing to change your routine to mark the occasion?  What dates do you always remember as significant?  What makes you dance?  What makes you dress up?  What makes you shut off your phone so you won’t be disturbed?

Those things which prompt us to stop everything and pour effort into exuberant festivities tell a lot about what we want out of life, what we strive for.  All those things we look forward to celebrating, the weddings and holidays and important life milestones, represent our ideals.  But the smaller observances are important too, and give a more detailed and nuanced view of how we approach life.  Those reasons we use to justify a night out with friends, an expensive meal, or an indulgence in a pastime we rarely participate tell us a lot about how we want our lives to be.

Isn’t it possible that this is the entire point of spirituality?  That our spiritual lives are, at their root, a collection of important ideals and ways of celebrating or honoring those ideals?  That the whole reason humans need spirituality is because it paints a picture of the life we desire and then actively engages us in celebrating that image?  

When Our Friends Disappoint Us

One of the most unsettling experiences we encounter is that moment when someone you think you know says or does something which completely contradicts the impression you have of them.  It’s natural to respond to these moments by reflexively reassessing the type of person they must be, to reevaluate their position on the scale from bad person to good person based on the new information.  

But in times like these it isn’t the person’s values or beliefs which have suddenly shifted, only our understanding of them.  Our understanding of reality is painted and reflected in our perceptions, so any time our perceptions are shown to be distorted it feels like the world has changed even when it hasn’t.  The fact that part of our worldview often has roots in a perceived commonality between our beliefs and values and those of the people with which we associate only makes these sudden cracks in the foundation of our relationships more difficult to handle.

The funny thing I’ve realized as current events have brought more and more discrepancies between my assessments of people and their expressed beliefs and opinions is that, deep down, it’s not surprise or shock I’m feeling as much as the loss of hopeful denial.  I want to believe that the people I enjoy being around share my beliefs and values, and often this means not poking into the darker corners and assuming all is well.  As reality is brought to light my reactions have become less angry and more resigned.  

“Oh, so-and-so, I really hoped you were better than that…”  ::blocks on facebook::

And the more it’s happened, as I’ve wondered how many of my friends have sighed in frustration and taken a step away from me over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this may be a significantly positive cultural shift in the making.  When we disagree over things or discover, suddenly, that we disagree with people we are close to over things we consider of vital importance in life, anger and combative confrontation have proven time and time again to be ineffective tools of change.  Our gut reaction is divisive, reinforcing everyone’s conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  They are reactions rooted in a worldview based firmly in the authority of the majority, the morality of might.  It’s a worldview which cannot survive if it turns out the majority is not firmly seated in power, that they might not have an accurate grasp on reality after all.

The more we are confronted with the fact that the people we know and love don’t always see the world the same way we do, that our beliefs and values are not universal, the less we can rest on the idea that must stamp out the detrimental beliefs of the errant minority.  The truth is that, when it comes to some belief or idea or feeling, we all belong to a group on the fringe, we all are left out of the group consensus at some point.  So every time we are confronted with a surprise revelation about someone we thought we knew and valued and respond with a quiet sigh of disappointment rather than a sudden escalation of righteous rage, it’s a victory for humanity.  It’s a step towards a global society which recognizes that differences are not grounds for oppression or violence.

Yule Brinner and Other Punny Holidays

On the topic of everyday or non-traditional rituals, my favorite celebration of the year happens at the Winter Solstice or Yule.  On that day, I gather my framily for a special feast of foods that, though we eat in the evening, are traditional breakfast foods.  If you’re a fan of the show Scrubs, you might remember that Turk and JD referred to breakfast food eaten at dinner as Brinner.  

Yes, we have Yule Brinner.

(If you’re not at least chuckling right now, do a quick Google search for Yul Brynner and then come back.  It’s a pun.)

Anyway, the special part of the celebration isn’t that it’s particularly meaningful.  It doesn’t have anything to do with anything.  It’s an excuse to get together and exchange holiday gifts with friends.  We’ve literally taken a pun and turned it into an annual tradition.  And that’s the part that matters.  It’s ours, and we consider it special.

It’s like Festivus.  Or Star Wars Day (May the 4th…).  There’s nothing that says we can’t make up celebrations and rituals for personal reasons, to celebrate how we see fit.  And, in fact, by doing so we often create more meaningful rituals than the ones observed as part of larger cultural traditions.  Traditions and rituals should mean something to us, even if just as a pun or an excuse to gather with people who mean something to us.  Shaping that cycle of observances shouldn’t be left to the forces of society, it should be something we create on an individual level.  It should fit our own spiritual intentions and needs, our own particular concept of what’s worth celebrating.  

But yes, you can all steal the Yule Brinner idea if you want it.  

But If You Flip the Coin…

I recently posted about how relationships we choose and nurture run far deeper than those based on blood relation.  My point was not that family isn’t important, but that family bonds have to be nurtured as well.  Sharing genetic material does not serve as an excuse to treat other people badly.

It’s interesting to see how people react when they find out that you are, willfully and by your own choice, estranged from a portion of your family.  For those who have gone through the experience of having a detrimental relationship with a family member and choosing to walk away from it, the responses are encouraging.  For everyone else, the prevailing opinion is less supportive.  

I came across this interesting blog post, and being the adult child who has broken contact with her parents, it was actually somewhat frustrating to read.  The idea that the parents are generally right, that the choices a child makes which lead them away from their parents’ ideals are probably wrong, and that the secret to maintaining a relationship with children in such cases depends on the parents addressing the lapses in judgment in the right way are, well, somewhat infuriating.  I read the example about the parents completely taken aback by their child questioning the existence of god and not wanting to follow their chosen path, and my heart went out to the kid.  

The thing is, there are two sides to every coin.  The sad stories of parents whose children have rejected their upbringing and left the nurturing fold of family to go ruin their lives are sometimes balanced on the flipside by the stories of fed up children whose parents set them on very narrow paths and had no tolerance for other ways of thinking or choices which fell outside their very small worldview.

In my case, I’m sure my parents tell their friends of a daughter who ran off to a liberal college and had her head filled with crazy ideas that led her away from god and family, despite the fact that they were nice to her partner and never disowned her.  But I tell the story of parents who put more importance on their pseudo-religious political ideas than the wellbeing of their daughter, who think it’s fine to say hateful things about gay people in general as long as they don’t say it to my face, and who, when told that it isn’t okay to refer to whole groups of people as “them” like they are some sub-species of human, heap a nice dollop of racism on top of the hate sundae.  

Another page on that blog says that estrangement is synonymous with alienation.  That estrangement is essentially the replacement of love with cruelty.  And I take issue with that.  Distancing yourself from a relationship which doesn’t contribute positively to your life is never something we should shame someone for.  Walking away from someone who claims to love you but doesn’t demonstrate actual understanding of what that means is not an act of cruelty.  It’s not the removal or replacement of love.  It’s an act of self care.

Framily Ties

They say blood is thicker than water.  Well, some say that.  And they get the saying wrong, anyway.  The actual proverb is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, which is actually the exact opposite of the other statement.  

Now, I’m not one to claim that old proverbs are a good set of rules by which to live life, but that’s fairly irrelevant.

I grew up in a household where family obligations were always more important than our friends.  Granted, I’m not sure my parents really had friends.  They didn’t have social obligations beyond all the things they had to ferry all us kids back and forth to, so maybe the real point was that we owed them for all the time they spent with us.  Still, the message was made quite explicit.  Friendships were fleeting and meaningless.  Give it ten years and we’d probably have a whole new group of friends.  So what did it matter if we didn’t get to hang out with them after school or if we ditched the skating party because some uncle we barely knew was coming to visit?

Of course, as a kid I had no real recourse.  If mom said we had to stay home to see Uncle Lives-In-Narnia-For-All-We-Know, that’s how it had to be.  And back then it was just an annoyance, really.  It was a matter of doing what we didn’t want to do in the name of family rather than doing something fun with our friends.

Then we all got older, and it turned out that there are, apparently, a large number of caveats and exceptions attached to the “family above everything else” rule.  

Nobody gets to declare that one particular kind of relationship is strong and unquestionable, and then contribute no effort into maintaining that relationship.  If family is more important than everything else, then the things you say about your family should be something you think through very carefully.  If family is so important, then treating family better than anyone else should be a priority.  But that’s so often not what people mean when they say blood is thicker than water.  They mean that family members are stuck with each other, no matter what.  They mean that they can treat their family like crap and not worry about it.  They mean their family owes them something.

Our relationships are vital pieces of our lives and our identities, they shape our self-image and either facilitate or hinder our progress in life.  We owe it to ourselves to give time and energy to the relationships which nurture us and leave behind the relationships which hurt us, blood relation or not.

During the last holiday season I read an article about the growing trend of gathering with “framily” – the friends we consider so close as to be family.  We’ve celebrated “Friendsgiving” and “Friendsmas” with our circle for several years now.  And for me, those gatherings have supplanted time with my actual family.  Because what I’ve learned over the years is that the people who really support me, the ones with whom we associate by choice, mean more to me than those who just happen to be related to me by chance.  That’s not to say that some of my family aren’t also part of my framily, but their status as friends is the one that counts.

Your God Tells You Who You Are

Our sense of self has a lot to do with how we see our place in the world, in the universe.  And our sense of our place in the greater scheme of things has a lot to do with our spiritual beliefs and our picture of the structure of the cosmos and the powers within it.  So, by extension, our sense of self has a lot to do with our spiritual beliefs.  In effect, the things you choose to believe in get to tell you who you are.

That’s an interesting conclusion for those of us who don’t believe in beings.  Though I have a spiritual life, it’s centered on my own spirit, and the forces I believe in most are the forces in my own mind and soul which I seek to learn to bend to the goal of making myself a better, more effective human being.  So, essentially, my spiritual path tells me that I can be whoever I want to be.

This comes, of course, with some interesting side beliefs.  If I can be whoever I want to be, if there is no all-seeing being out there assessing me and offering up status reports, then the evaluation of how well I’m doing on the quest to be “better” is up to me alone.  The rules for what is acceptable and what needs to be changed about my life falls to me and the people around me to determine.  I get to place the power of authority where I feel it belongs.  Punishment for failure won’t wait until I’m dead, it will be meted out in this life only.

In short, my sense of self and self-worth gets to be measured on more mundane scales, and the honesty of my self-assessment becomes a key factor in how well my spiritual pursuits work out for me.  Again, the things you choose to believe in get to tell you who you are.  If you are honest with yourself, the self you believe in will paint you an accurate picture of who you are and who you can become.  If you are less than honest with yourself, the self you believe in is more likely to tell you that you’re fine the way you are and everyone else just needs to deal with it.

Somewhere Between Missionary Anthropologists and Ancient Aliens…

So, work still progresses very slowly on my Magnum Opus, and when I talk about it with people I admit to struggling with one key factor about its content.  The whole premise of the book is that, by looking at the history of mankind and the evolution of spirituality and religion as we know it, we might be able to cobble together some kind of blueprint for meaningful human spirituality.  That idea is not new.  The secondary idea is that we might also not really be working with an accurate understanding of ancient, especially prehistoric, spiritual thought.  Also, not something I would be the first to assert.  

But how do you tell someone you’re writing about how our common understanding of science might be wrong without sounding like a crackpot?  

The simple fact is that I think we make a lot of biased assumptions when we seek to interpret archaeological evidence.  And let us not forget that much of the earliest work in anthropology was done by missionaries who had an preconceived notion regarding the history of mankind and its place in the universe, not to mention a call to save the natives.

By the same token, I’m no scientist.  I mean, I could have been a scientist, I quite enjoy studying science, but my degree isn’t in science.  

The truth is, though, that what we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people who aren’t scientists and therefore get our scientific knowledge through the media and such’) are always several steps behind the current state of scientific understanding.  Papers are constantly being published and new research is being done all the time, much of which contradicts or alters the understandings we’ve previously held to be true.  And discoveries are being made which never make the press because they aren’t exciting to those outside the field.  What we understand about our history is constantly changing, and the more we learn the more we see the bias of the past.

So the point I think I’m making in the book is not that our previous notions about the roots of spirituality in mankind are wrong, but that they could be and that we should be critical of our assumptions.  What happens if we assume that our ancient ancestors had ritual without spiritual underpinnings?  That the presence of artistic expression doesn’t point towards religion?  That not all ancient stories can be read as myth?  It changes our view of what religion does for us, what it means in the context of human development.

Anyway, it’s a struggle to condense all that to a two-sentence blurb that doesn’t make the book sound like some kind of romp into conspiracy territory, or at the very least some kind of atheist propaganda.  But the ultimate point of the work isn’t really about science.  It’s about searching for the reason why some of us are called to ritual, to practice, even when we know there’s nothing particularly sacred behind it all.  What is it we really want, and how can we find it if we don’t want the religious baggage that might come with it?