Here I am again, happy that I didn’t put “go to sleep at a reasonable time” on some list of things to do today (or yesterday, I guess).
It is December 24 and I’m caught in that strange limbo between my churchy upbringing and my decidedly anti-churchy adulthood again. I’ll be driving to Mom’s later today to partake in the family tradition of Eve celebration. Mom has a tremor in her hands these days. We think it’s a side-effect of the anti-anxiety medication, but we’re going to make sure and ask the doctor next visit, just to cover the bases and be sure.
We always did it this way, the Eve thing. Mostly, I think, so that I could have an extra bit of alone time with my new toys. That only-child thing came in handy as a kid – I was usually pretty spoiled. I was also a loner, so the 25th tradition of hosting friends, or being hosted at friends’ homes, for the big tryptophan overdose was a chore. I was always much happier with the thought of making up imaginary stories for my action figures to battle through, or reading my new books, or playing my new games, than I was being social with kids that I didn’t identify with, or adults that I got even less.
I shirked off the illusion of Santa at an early age. Mom said I was three when I looked up at them one Eve and said that I knew the Santa thing was a crock, and that they didn’t have to pretend on my account. They laughed, she told me, but it was a sign of things to come.
That’s kind of how I feel about the religiosity of the whole season too, or rather, the attempt to impose a religious reason for the season. When I was eleven or twelve, around the same time that the church we had gone too unintentionally ostracized Mom for being in a failed marriage (how dare she!), I started to peel back the curtain and see churches for what they really were – country clubs for the religiously mobile.
I remember reading for the first time the opinion of scholars that December 25th was an unlikely date for the birth of a Jewish messiah, if the little tyke had indeed been born during a census as the story goes. The Roman empire, being as continentally expansive as it was, included some pretty damned cold and snowy places, and the middle of winter would not have been a good time to ask all of the citizens and subjects to head back over hill and snowy dale to descend upon their home towns for the census taking. They were reasonable, those Romans, and conducted their censuses in the early spring, after the snow and before serious planting season. If there was a historical Jesus born in an historical manger in his foster-dad’s historical home town during a census, the smart money is on it happening some time in April or early May, closer to Easter than to this charade of a religious holiday in early winter.
I’ve never been able to take “The Reason for the Season” seriously since then. It was the first of many disillusionments when it came to all things x-ian. Others, like the fact that most of our Judeo-Christian holidays are simply neo-versions of pagan holidays superimposed over the old celebrations as a way to churchify the days people were going to celebrate anyway, or the fact that so many pre-Jesus pagan deities share so many instances of serendipitous coincidence with the Jesus mythology, just cemented the deal. The added fact that this holiday, more than any other, typifies our western obsession with turning everything into a reason to shop, helps my cynicism too.
It’s not that I’m a Scrooge. I enjoy the happiness that sometimes overpowers the stress of angry shoppers playing full-contact consumerism down the toy aisles. I take a bit of consolation in the fact that more of my friends do secret Santa variations instead of wholesale shopping one-upmanship. An informal survey of climbers at the climbing gym this week (I was covering so that my friend, the owner, could get some well-deserved R&R) revealed that more than half of the more regular and serious climbers do a present-sharing scheme version of some sort, limiting their over-consumption. This may be because we tend to be counter-culture a lot. Or maybe because we’re simply less affluent than many. The two probably kind of go hand in hand. Either way, we’re all happy. Hell, we’re often silly we’re so happy.
But still, I have a level of frustration as I watch drivers share their xmas spirit by fingering each other as they race from mall to mall, or other friends participate in the race to see who is least cheap, and most “generous” (like it’s a competition or something), credit be damned, the stress of anticipated card bills already dancing like obese sugar plum accountants just behind their fake smiles.
I wonder if the sardonic humor I feel coursing through my veins is just a world-weary reaction to the foolishness I’m watching, or whether it’s something darker; something more Freudian.
When the first real experience of religious disillusionment kicked in, back in my pre-adolescence, I was angry about it; angry at the church and at god for the way Mom was treated so callously by the church; angry that god had simply not shown up in such a profound way. I stayed angry about it all through my teens – angry and depressed. Then, when I fell back into religion as an adult, through most of my marriage, I was told that god had not failed – I had failed; my faith had failed. I was encouraged to read Job a lot. Have you read Job? Wonderful morality tale, that Job is, if amazingly depressing, and a very sophisticated apologetic for the shitty things that happen to people. And for a while I believed it all again too, silly me.
When I walked away the second time, the curtain pulled back one more time to reveal the gears and machinations behind the holy veil, I vowed that I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There are amazing things about faith that have nothing to do with religion at all. My faith remains a living, breathing thing. I’m not sure what my faith is in any more – certainly, it’s nothing to do with the specific mythology of western religion – but I can still feel a breath of belief in me. And a strong one too.
Like Ramakrishna, I now believe that all religions have truth in them, in their innate humanism. It isn’t coincidence that most world religions have a version of the golden rule. Science and atheism can’t explain everything out there any more believably than any religion can. In a sense, science can be a religion too, with its high priests in white garb, test tubes in hand – our gatekeepers to a better understanding. I don’t have faith in science, as interesting as new discoveries are, just like I don't have faith in religions with their old explanations. Both are corrupt, flawed by the need of institutions to control people, and control information, and keep people dumb and in the dark.
Faith, to me, is sacred: The ongoing search for an understanding of things as a whole. Science isn’t an answer – it’s a path. Same with religion. And all paths, potentially, even when they are corrupted by the intrinsic nature of institutions, can lead to the roof. That’s what Ramakrishna said. Who cares how we get there, so long as we move in that direction.
I just prefer no path. I like bushwacking. A bushwacking kind of faith isn't very defined. It doesn't mean that you can't get anywhere - it's not being directionless - it just means that you have to scrape through the burning bushes, and wade through the seas. Nothing is done for a bushwacker - we do for ourselves.
I have faith in the knowledge that we don’t know everything. I have faith in the truism that the more we know, the more we should know that we don't really know. I have faith in the thought that empathy might win out one day, and that our species will actually become what we’re capable of being. I have faith in the ability of my fellow humans to transcend the bullshit, only occasionally sometimes, but at other time, in some people or in some places and times, on a scale that is truly miraculous and marvelous to behold. I have faith that we could do that more, and that if we could, it would change everything.
So yeah, I still have a semblance of faith.
Sometimes, when I think about how anti-tradition I am, it bothers me. I wonder if I’m just being kooky and unjustifiably recalcitrant. I wonder how much easier it would be to just go with the flow. I wonder if the reason that so many of the high profile atheists seem so goddamned angry all the time is because, like me, they still feel the sting of their lost religion and the comforts it provides. Is that why I’m prickly about this topic? Because I’m still angry that I saw behind the curtain and the truth robbed me of all my comfortable illusions?
Maybe it is. At least, maybe it still is a bit.
And then I remember that I’m not generally inclined to swim with the current at the best of times. Certainly, in the face of so much cultural and self-deception, it’s unreasonable for me to expect such behavior of my self. I’m that guy that goes up the down escalator some times, just because. This is who I am. I like being the wrench in the works, when the works need wrenching. Seeing behind the curtain, through the veil, was probably kind of inevitable. Seeing behind one too many times, in one to many milieus, has made me skeptical and cynical a bit, I know. I have to live with that.
Honestly, I try not to push it too hard. I'm no better at being an anti-church evangelist than I was at being a pro-church evangelist. Ask me, I'll tell ya. Otherwise, you probably would barely notice. I’m okay with mostly letting those around me enjoy the season. I’m not a humbug kind of cynic, but I don’t keep my mouth completely shut either. Christmas doesn’t make me sour, just thoughtful, and very observant.
And glad I don’t have to go to church.
So tomorrow I’ll go to Mom’s and help make dinner. We’ll open a couple presents (I’ve talked her into simple things with practicality, and no sweaters, but I can’t talk her out of it entirely). I’ll even have a little gift for her and Miriam to open, just cuz. And then, after they go to bed at their early hour, I’ll sneak up the stairwell and spend a bit of time thinking on the roof and staring up at the stars.
I’ll hope that maybe we’ll all reach out for our best selves a little more this year. I’ll wish for a pervasive empathy to settle like a swaddling blanket over the human race just a touch more than it ever has before. I’ll believe that we’re capable of it, and that, in itself, will be a little miracle for me. I’ll try to see things the way they really are and still be hopeful. Up there alone. On the roof.
Because that’s what matters – getting to the roof and having your eyes open enough to appreciate it when you get there.
At least that’s what I think.
Happy Seasons and Merry Greetings, everyone.