Let’s Get Together

I think an oft-ignored aspect of our spiritual lives is how our beliefs shape our choices, especially when it comes to careers or important hobbies.  And it’s not just that our beliefs preclude or encourage certain activities, though that is usually a factor.  It’s also a matter of groups of people with similar convictions spending time together and aligning themselves.  The more time you spend with a group of people, the more likely you are to begin doing and believing similar things.

I actually think that, for me, that pattern has occurred in reverse (which is also probably fairly common).  As someone with a decidedly solitary spiritual practice, it is my social circle which has helped expose me to spiritual ideas and, therefore, influenced the direction my path has taken.

Interestingly enough, I think this has occurred more since I stopped participating in organized religion than it ever did before.  Perhaps it’s an indicator of how deeply your spiritual life has become part of your existence, how deeply those beliefs resonate with you at a soul level.

Or maybe it’s just because we have a need for community, for connection.  If our practice is solitary, perhaps we are more likely to seek like-minded companionship in other areas of our lives.  In other words, maybe the extent to which we find ourselves gravitating to activities and pastimes shared by others with similar beliefs is a matter of needing that community support but not wanting the interference of others in our spirituality.

 

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Brothers and Sisters

For many people, spirituality is a way to become part of a community.  You find acceptance and validation with people who believe what you believe.  Sharing a path with someone can be the foundation for a very deep bond.

There are a great many people who walk their spiritual path alone by choice.  I’ve largely been such a person for most of my life.  Even when I was part of larger, mainstream religions I chose not to participate in a lot of unnecessary gatherings or activities.  I needed personally relevant experiences, and for me those tend not to happen in groups.

Certainly now I can’t say that I know anyone whose beliefs mirror my own very closely.

Still, as I’ve contemplated the question of who out there believes what I believe, I’ve realized something possibly profound.  My spiritual beliefs, as I’ve talked about some on this blog, link strongly to my social activism.  And so, if I look at it from that perspective, I know many, many people who believe what I believe.  I stand at protests with them and organize with them.  Though our beliefs about the existence of a deity or what it means to be spiritual may differ, our beliefs about the value of humanity are the same.  And though I may elect to search alone for answers about what lies beyond and beneath our mundane existence, the type of personally relevant and transformative experiences I have in gatherings with this larger community are equally important to my spiritual self.

Perhaps we all do ourselves a disservice by seeking spiritual community only in spiritual settings.  Perhaps the communities we will benefit from the most are found when we put our spiritual beliefs into practice for a greater good.

Keep Marching

The fourth common element of religion is ritual.  The important tenets of religion are taught and reinforced through ceremonies and traditional activities.

The religion of activism, as it were, is taught and made real through protests and marches, phone calls and letters, rallies, voting, and philanthropy work.  There are, unarguably, a set of activities which become the practice of activism.  Anyone who devotes themselves to the fight for a cause goes into it with an idea of what needs to be done.

Most of us don’t often think of these things as ritual or ceremony in the same way we think of religious observances, but in recent months the frequency and size of protests and marches I’ve attended has increased to the point that attending a protest is akin to going to church.  People talk about what we’re there for, what’s important, what the message is that we’re putting out into the world.  We hold up signs and chant and march.  It’s repeated often enough to be a common ritual.

It’s both symbolic and active, a gathering which makes the idea of a movement tangible and real.

And each group, each person, each community has their own individual ways of observing the rituals of activism.  The particular concerns and identities and cultures of a community show up in their ritual variants, just as different communities within a larger religious community have their own unique traditions.

Not only do these ceremonies and traditions and rituals bind a community together in common ideas, they are visible expressions of the things which are important to the group.  They are important both internally and externally, and they are events which serve to focus the energies and efforts of a group towards a single objective.  Much like ancient groups had hunts and feasts and communal fires which served to preserve group cohesion, rallies and meetings and marches serve to bind a group together and keep their focus on group goals.

 

An Epic of Hope

The third element of religion is the existence of central stories or myths.  Personally, I think this is the origin of religion, that group storytelling as a cultural mechanism gave rise to a more ritualized practice and more established bodies of myth.

Interestingly enough, one of the things I’ve committed to doing since the election and inauguration is to read more books on feminism, racial issues, immigration, LGBTQ+ history, etc.  Not all of the books I’ve collected are filled with stories, per se, but the idea is that in sharing and partaking in each others’ experiences and points of view we become better able to be allies in the fight for human rights.

Essentially, it is in telling our stories to others that we establish ourselves in their minds as real, valuable people.  It is by telling our stories that we become more than archetypes and stereotypes in the minds of those who’ve not shared our experiences.  The telling of stories conveys ideas about cultural expectations, ethics and morals, and our relationships to each other.

Stories are infinitely more powerful than simple statements.

One of the most interesting groups to spring up recently is Pantsuit Nation, which started as a small group of Clinton supporters and grew into a collective of tens of thousands of people who, mostly, tell their stories to each other.  They tell stories to express their frustrations and fears.  They tell stories to help motivate each other.  They tell stories to illustrate how the world is changing around us.  They tell stories to keep each other hopeful.  They tell stories to share ideas for action.

In more recent days I’ve seen groups pop up on social media telling the stories of immigrants and refugees, groups telling the stories of activists behind the scenes and on the ground, and groups telling the stories of little known heroes of the past.  In a time when the world seems filled with anger and frustration and fear and hate, we’ve chosen to fill it also with our stories.

The central mythology of activism includes the stories of small actions which produced huge results, the tales of groups rising up to change the world, and stories of people just like us in the past who made it through similar circumstances.  It’s a mythology centered on hope and inspiration.  It puts our own struggles into perspective.  It consists of the stories we need to hear to keep us going.

Engage the Masses

The second element of a religion is that there is a community of adherents, a collective belief and practice.  Activism is like that, too, in that there is a coalition of people and organizations for just about any particular concern of focus a person could have.  And each time events draw people together to fight against something or fight for something, there emerges a community with its own name and agenda.

In fact, I think that’s one of the best things about times like this when we’re compelled to stand up for humanity as a matter of great urgency:  we come together.  We connect with each other over a desire to do good, to make the world better.  Unlike most religions, activism comes with the sense that solitary practice has little impact.  It’s not about the individual, it’s about the collective.  A necessary part of activism is to join your efforts with the efforts of a large number of others, because that’s the point at which things actually begin to happen.

This gives activists the reassurance that the small amount of change or effort we can produce on our own is backed by the larger collective, that our struggle is not solitary and that we are not alone.  In addition, there’s the added element of knowing that one’s efforts are needed by other activists, that what we are able to do is valued by those who are striving towards the same goals.  Unlike many traditional religions, activism tends to draw people into group participation and collective bonding rather than pushing them into increasingly solitary prayer and devotion.  There is no benefit to keeping ideas and knowledge to oneself in activism.  Any effort is amplified by participation, and there are no rewards for attempting to solve problems alone.