As a child, however, the version that played in my little head went something like this: You saw it coming. You were ready. You said all the long goodbyes. You went peacefully into Jesus' arms. And, if you died young, as a child a little younger than me from my Church had, it was because you had already achieved the likeness to God--you were an overachiever, there was nothing left for you to learn or do. This sounds like how a parent would explain it to their kid--so maybe that's where that came from and I just remembered the message and not the actual conversation. It worked, I guess--death wasn't something to fear to me--not like, say the second coming of Christ and the Rapture--because you were ready and God knew you were ready and everything was all tidied up like the last page of a good book.
The deaths of my childhood all seemed to fit very neatly into this box I had created--or anyway, I wasn't present for them, so I could easily imagine it to be so and no adults were quick to tell me otherwise. After the young boy from my church (who had always seemed much closer to God than the rest of us), came my great-grandmother and later, my grandfather. In both of the latter cases, they were old (to me), and had gone through several health issues, laid on a deathbed, and presumable had their last breaths observed by loved ones. I don't remember a specific moment when I realized this small sampling of death, this very vague and innocent understanding of it, was far more idyllic than I could have ever imagined. Honestly? It probably happened watching a movie. Or, maybe when we found out one of my brother's childhood girlfriends was decapitated in a car accident--where was her long goodbye? In what way could her ending have been described as peaceful?
Of course, it comes as no surprise, as you grow up you develop a deeper understanding, a more complex view of life and death. You learn more about other people's experiences and gain perspectives that trump your own unique experience. I moved a few times growing up, but stayed in the mid-west Bible belt through it all--and so did my perspective on the world. Much like with death--my understanding of life was naive, simple, and idyllic. There was one true God--no one comes to the Father but through Christ. And even people who had never heard the gospel were not exempt---God would appear to them Himself, I was told, in the field, in their heart. If you did not believe in our God, the Devil himself had a hold on your soul. While tangible wars where real men, women and children were drying raged on elsewhere in the world, this was the only war that was real to me.
I also believed we all had one true soul mate with whom you would meet and fall in love, usually around the time you graduated from College (how convenient!). You would get married and you would have children. You would work a job that brought those around you closer to God. You would raise your children with your beliefs. You would probably take family mission trips to other parts of the world and tell them what you knew was the truth and save their souls. You would grow old and eventually you would die, and be reunited with all the saved souls whose bodies had been lost in life.
When I was around 16 years old God "spoke" to me--mind you, this was not a rare occurrence for someone who grew up taught that God and the Devil were as real as Mom and Dad. God told me to go to Italy to witness to people (those poor heathen Catholics!) and so, like Joan of Arc, off I went. Just before this time, my religious parents split up causing a mighty ripple of events both inside and outside of me. My parents had raised us in a black and white world, and suddenly we were being drowned in a tidal wave of grays. Yet, even as I became immersed in the gray, I couldn't let go of my black and white viewpoint--it was all I had known--it was the only lens through which I'd ever been taught to interpret the world, so my only option was to take the gray and divide it best as I could back into black and white. Good and bad. God and the devil. The devil was making this happen. This was war. It just wasn't my war--no, my war, I decided, was half way across the world in Italy. Which, coincidentally, religious beliefs aside, is probably where most 16 year olds stuck in the middle of their parent's contemptuous divorce would be if they could...halfway around the world, away from it all.
It is ironic to some (and tragic to others) that when I then returned from my Joan of Arc mission; I found myself with a new atheistic worldview. What happened in my 8 months and 8 days overseas was a painful and complicated perspective growth-spurt. For 16 years of my life I had only one narrative on life--one that had been relatively unquestioned by me as I had yet to encounter anything that seemed to poke any real holes in it. That said, listen…no one wants to consider himself/herself naive or dense, and while I always got pretty good grades in school, looking back on it now--I really wasn't terribly intelligent. I had other qualities like passion, persistence, creativity, and compassion...but the ability to think critically or understand things outside of my slim, well-ingrained viewpoint were limited, to say the least. And what do you get when you mix all those qualities and deficits together? An evangelist! Ha, but seriously (I was).
I could go more in depth on my time in Italy--the specifics of my complicated familial breakdown--the religious war that was occurring in my imagination, the struggle and perhaps unseen benefit of freaking out over something that is a huge blow in your world view/culture but mundane in the foreign country of your residence--the overwhelming, life-changing loneliness of being a minority...but I wont. Suffice it all to this metaphor--you live your whole life in one pair of jeans that you think will always fit, then suddenly you have a very fast and extreme growth spurt wherein your jeans rip slowly but consistently every day until they finally are nothing but shredded material and you walk right out of them...and are suddenly exposed...but then you find a new pair of pants and this time, you vow not to become too attached, to go shopping every few months, open up your mind to skirts even...at any rate, one thing is for certain...you'll never fit back into those old jeans again.
I came home a few months early under the public guise of attending my high school graduation, but those closest to me knew the real reason: I was incredibly depressed. Who wouldn't be? While to many I was living a dream life, my life in Italy, as all our lives, everywhere in the world, was much more complex than my geographical coordinates. Destinations don't make you happy, that all comes from inside--and that's not to trivialize the unhappy. It's not a switch after-all...I really think happiness is a process of learning how to be at peace within yourself---having copping mechanisms in place--knowing what makes you happy and how to deal with what doesn't. And that's a tall order for any 16/17 year old--much less one going through a "crisis-of-faith" and the dissolution of a family unit in a country where you don't speak the language or understand the culture or know anyone.
I thought I would go home and everything would sort of slowly piece back together and I would believe what I had believed before and I could, at the very least, turn my experience of living in Italy into a story that would attract people to me. None of that happened though and no one really cared. I graduated with a class who hadn't seen me in a year and felt more foreign to me than the country I’d just returned from. My family life was still a mess, but now there was even more distance between us all, and it definitely didn't help things. And when I went back to Church the words hit my ears soaked in insincerity, arrogance, and ignorance. It literally made me feel sick to my stomach and I knew then, I could never go back--you never can. You can't unlearn what you've lived.
The thing to me that I find most troublesome about many organized religions and religious people (though certainly not all), is the clinging to this idea that you have the truth and everyone else is buying lies. When you are a kid growing up, you think whatever your family situation is, is normal...until you start going to other kid's houses and see how their families function, and then, you see that your experience is just that: your experience. Religious beliefs are like this--you grow up with or join a community of like-minded believers and that belief just gets reinforced and validated over and over again and it's easy to forget or negate the fact that, across the street, across the pond, across the globe there are people in other communities doing exactly the same thing with their beliefs.
When you leave the communal belief bubble and travel to different countries, different communities, when you live side by side with people who have beliefs different than your own, when you become friends with people whose "lifestyles" you've been raised to believe are sinful deviations caused by Satan himself...I dare you to look in their eyes, to hold their children, to wipe their tears, to hear their stories and then tell them that their experience is null-in-void to your own; that their beliefs are incorrect. I dare you keep saying those insulting, condescending platitudes like "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Yet, there are so many people who do--who remain unchanged by the people they meet, whose defensive veils are so thick as to disregard any testimony that holds the potential of countering their belief system—just plain writing it off, judging it wrong, and calling it a day. Some are more rude or crass about it than others, but in some ways I think the people who write you off “with love” hurt worse, because it’s usually done by someone close to you, someone you feel like should respect your experiences not as something less than their own. And I think when you feel truly loved by someone, it is when they respect you and listen with intent to understand, not just to judge or be “right.”
I want to stop for a moment here, because I don't want it to seem like I'm now railing against the religious or saying they are wrong for believing what they believe—I mean, while I do personally believe that, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to say that out right, wouldn't it? I basically just switched teams. The key difference now is that I don’t go around in my daily life trying to dissuade people from believing in their god of choice. I don’t go to Walmart and hand out pamphlets. I don’t fly to another culture and ask them if they’ve heard “the good news.” I'm not actively trying to WIN (it would be nice, obviously) but at the root of what I want...what I feel is a more realistic and respectable goal, what I strive for (some days more successfully than others) and what I hope you really hear in the midst of all these hot-trigger words, is me saying the only thing I knew to be true when I returned from Italy…fragile and confused and depressed: No one knows (but we all like to think we do!). We pick sides. We hedge our bets. We do our best to make sense of the unknowable so that things like death are easier to swallow.
If you are able to look objectively at the world (which I know is a tall order for us all)...but really, doesn’t it seem like all the possibilities are equally out there? One god, hundreds of gods, no god, afterlife, reincarnation, nothingness...none of it is easy to comprehend; none of it is as simple as black and white. Here's what I really think...here's my wish for citizens of this world: be respectful, take care of each other (and I mean everyone--not just those whom you understand, who believe what you believe, who live within your moral standards or have had a similar spiritual experience), and stop telling other people you're right and they're wrong (believe it, if you must—and we all must--but keep it to yourself for goodness sakes!).
I know this is especially challenging because some beliefs, like Christianity, are rooted in saving souls--and the way you show love is by praying and trying to save someone from eternal damnation. That's a very scary thing when you believe that and it is genuinely rooted in a caring for another person, but at the same time it is also rooted in "I’m right, your wrong, my experience trumps your own"...which is unfortunately all that many people (myself included) hear when you ask us to come to your church or say you've been praying for us.
I know my wishes are a pipe-dream--just because I wrote this the whole world wont stop shouting, drop their weapons, hug one another and agree to disagree, in fact, it may cause even more arguments, I don't know...I sincerely hope not...but maybe one or two people will read this and consider another perspective. All these words I've just written...they are all from my perspective, based on my experience...I’m sometimes angry, sometimes bitter, sometimes pious...I’m sometimes loving, sometimes forgiving, sometimes understanding...sometimes I listen more than I speak, and sometimes I shout more than I listen...I think, as with all problems, the first step is admitting that there is a problem.
So, in conclusion, may we seek to understand before we judge, and then judge not at all, but embrace in a mutual respect for one another. There are unknowable things in life, but what is known is this: we're all here right now, all flesh and beating heart, dreaming, struggling, hurting, longing, with real and tangible needs. So, let's strive to take care of each other first and foremost—that’s objective #1. Objective #2? Respect that another person’s experience is not being given to you for you to then spit it back with your own narrative or judgment on it--instead, strive to understand the experience being entrusted to you, ask questions rather than offering your point of view (unless expressly asked for) and try to allow just enough room for doubt in your own interpretation of life and death and religion that you don’t become an insufferable jerk.