Writing the Struggle

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely through the world through manual competence have been known to make a (person) quiet and easy. They seem to relieve (them) of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of (themselves) to vindicate (their) worth. – Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, p. 15.

For a few years now I have had a major block to writing and academic work. My background and expertise is in religion and the intersection of religious and secular education. I began that work from a place of deep faith in God and on the path first to ministry and then to academic work from that place of faith. I’ve always worked through a so-called “imposter syndrome” where few things I do have left me feeling enough confidence to keep doing them. Academic work and writing, along with other creative endeavors, have the judgment of others acting as so many gateways and obstacles to the standards of success that most people might ascribe to any work. Anyone who has worked through depression or has had any form of dysfunction in their lives always has to work in spite of the chattering of worthlessness pervasive in work that requires the criticism of others to reach an audience. But in the past few years I have had two events that both created a true sense of my self as an impostor and reinforced those chattering interpretations that pounded on me relentlessly throughout my life.

The first event is that I lost my faith. Maybe a more honest way of phrasing this is that I came to accept that I never had very strong faith in the first place. Throughout my Christian life I tried to believe what others had confirmed I should believe. I practiced the traditions and learned how to bracket my cynical and skeptical inclinations in order to experience God through an act of faith. I ironically knew in my rational self that in order to experience God, I had to do so in spite of reason or at least at the limits of what reason could do for me. Belief in God is never won by well crafted arguments and logic regardless of what the tract writers and apologists will preach to you. Faith is a deeply affective surrender to a being that you come to understand is the best hope for your own serenity and the salvation of the wold from all of its worst attributes even as that same being gives life to the best of what humanity and the splendor of nature could possibly offer. But that story ran out of gas for me in the spring of 2015. I could not move forward with my happiness unless I let all of that go. I decided that if the object of faith was real, I would remain open and let it back in when it showed up in such a way that I could no longer deny its fundamental, lifegiving reality. My door is still open, the invitation does not have an expiration, but I am no longer sitting in the ballroom waiting for anyone to show up. And that has brought me a profound sense of relief.

My door is still open, the invitation does not have an expiration, but I am no longer sitting in the ballroom waiting for anyone to show up. And that has brought me a profound sense of relief.

The second event includes the deaths of my mother and step-father. Both were people of deep faith and both had serious physical complications from heart disease and kidney failure for the remaining years of their lives. My mother was especially reliant on the power of prayer. To let her in on the secret that I no longer prayed for anyone and that I honestly never had a very consistent prayer life even in my most religious days wasn’t something I thought was very appropriate especially when she was in and out of the hospital and so very ill much of the time. I left that part of my life unspoken. I know that keeping secrets to protect people never really works out. Just look at sitcoms and superhero shows. Heroes keeping secrets to protect those they love is the wellspring for all conflicts on these shows and no one ever seems to get it. I don’t think it hurt her that I never spoke about my deconversion, but I probably didn’t give her enough credit to believe that she would have been able to take it if I had told her. It’s not a place of guilt for me and I am not sure I would have handled it differently anyway. That’s because of my step-father. He always had advice and a plan for everything. Deep down I think he meant well, but the impact had a reverse effect on me. I don’t think there was a single piece that I had ever written that did not come with it some form of criticism from him that left be feeling low, beaten down, and condescended to. Blog posts, tweets, articles, even random comments on Facebook would often be followed by a critique from him that would sometimes branch off into my step-father arguing with other people who were actually defending my position. The last straw was when he disagreed with the obituary that I wrote for my mother. So I stopped writing. I tried to come back to wait a few times, but it was the same drumbeat and I had enough of it. When those who should support you when you are doing things a little scary create the fear that makes them scary in the first place, even those feelings and resentments that you know you had reconciled long ago find a way to resurrect. In his final two years of life he had chilled out a lot with his trolling, but I just didn’t want to resurrect it again.

When those who should support you when you are doing things a little scary create the fear that makes them scary in the first place, even those feelings and resentments that you know you had reconciled long ago find a way to resurrect.

For the past two months I have been asking myself the question, what should I do now? Now that I have been able to identify the things that had blocked me and those things are physically no longer here, the rest is all in my head. Much like running very long distances, sometimes the only way out of a problem is to keep moving forward with the expectation that you will feel better down the road. Yesterday as I was once again regurgitating these existential questions and it was another morning of “What should I write?” or “I can’t keep working through religion from a place of agnosticism, right?” I applied what I knew about running and what I have done even after I believed my body was done, why not just start writing about the struggle itself? That’s moving forward at at least. Every successful writer I have watched from afar has said precisely this. Sometimes you have to write your way out of a block. It’s not just writing in spite of or through a struggle, but writing the struggle itself. Maybe that’s where I can get a little catharsis, dismiss the imposter, and move forward.

Gravity and Death

Gravity is one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe, and yet we know so much about it. Things are held to the surface of the earth not because of a force, but because the earth is much bigger than the stuff on it. Objects warp the space they are in and objects travel along the curves of that space towards the center of the bigger object. It’s like putting a marble in a funnel or what happens if a much larger person sits next to you on a mattress. The point is that our very presence as physical objects warps the space around us.

We all bend space and time physically and psychically in very tangible and literal ways. Our interactions with others warp their lives in both positive and negative ways. Love, anger, joy – these experiences with each other change our approach to the world and some people like David Bowie, Mother Theresa, or even Donald Trump seem to take up more space and maintain a stronger pull of this gravity around them. So when they die, the space left behind seems to be bigger.

When we die, we create a hole in space and time. Those ripples we have created in the experience of others and in the artifacts of our lives still exist. But the object people expect at the source of all of that stuff is no longer there. What’s left is the outline of a presence, a ghost, and that’s frightening. Often the strength of the relationship we have with that missing person determines the size of the hole in our lives.

I hold the idea that we do not exist in any form other than these ripples, artifacts, and memories after we die. I used to hold on to the idea of an eternal soul, but noy any more. There is no soul that meets God who will judge its fitness for a heavenly realm. We won’t meet past relatives, rock stars, and pets. After we die, we aren’t asleep, we won’t dream, and will never wake up.

Instead, we persist only as these waves dancing through space and time in the memories of others. I used to find this idea terrifying, empty, and horribly depressing. If I am not fundamentally a soul seeking its source in God, what purpose is there for living? But I failed to ask the question, Why do I need an ultimate purpose to be happy?

This isn’t to say I don’t have purposes. I have important functions in the world to my kids, my partner, parents, siblings, job, service, and even my dog. These are all relationships and roles I keep because they make me happy and I think I can help them be happier too. After all, for Epicurus, happiness was rooted in the pursuit of virtue and love through friendship.

Over the past year I have learned to live without a soul or an ultimate purpose. In the process I’ve realized just how important living is. What I do here and now determines the kind of ripples through space and time I will leave behind after I die. Will I contribute to the happiness of those I encounter, or will I participate in their suffering. Every choice I make is pregnant with the binary of happiness or suffering. Life has distilled into this one algorithm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It has given me the clearest way to determine my own happiness, and it works.