Warning: This post is about politics, God, a dear friend of mine and a chance encounter with my sixth-grade Social Studies teacher.
I enjoy talking politics with my friends, even with those friends who adamantly disagree with me or have an entirely different perspective than mine.
There are consequences, however. Openly discussing your political beliefs (made so much easier today with social media) can cost you some very special friendships; it can also put a strain on your relationships with family members; it can even cost you your job or social status.
Politics, very much like religion, is not for the faint of heart. Both topics are generally dominated by people with an absolute and an unquestionable belief that their position is the correct one.
I envy those people. I really do.
A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of book titled: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” I never read the book, and now I can’t even find the copy she gave me. Basically, the book explores the contrasting worlds of atheism and Christianity, tackling subjects such as “does God really exist; and if so how is God defined and what are the consequences for the world.”
It is not light reading, which pretty much explains why I didn’t read it.
From my perspective, it is decidedly much more convenient to reject the notion of God, the idea of sin and the premise that there is something much greater than human construct. It’s much more palatable for me to be a “spiritual” being; a small part of a great universe in which we are all connected, open to definition, without judgment or much consequence for any of our actions.
I feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.
I was raised as a Catholic. I didn’t learn much about God or Jesus Christ during my weekly catechism classes, but I aced the lessons in standing, sitting and kneeling on command. I also learned about the Pope, the hazards of a nun with a ruler and the seven sacraments.
The coolest of the seven sacraments, in my opinion, is the Holy Sacrament of Confession. For you non-Catholics out there (repent now before being cast into Hell), the weekly act of confession involves going into a telephone booth sized room and telling a priest about your sins. The priest then absolves you of all your sins and as a consequence instructs you to say five (maybe 10) Hail Mary prayers.
It was like a license to sin. Steal a pack of chewing gum from Zayre’s? Say five Hail Marys. Get into your father’s collection of Playboy magazines? Say five Hail Marys. Kill the neighbor’s cat (on purpose)? Say five Hail Marys.
There is a reason that the concept of “Hail Mary” is synonymous with the idea of a long-shot. Just ask Fredo Corelone about that.
Anyway, growing up Catholic is relatively painless. You don’t have to handle snakes, you just have to digest a small, thin wafer of cardboard every week and believe that it has been transformed into the body of Jesus Christ.
I tried being a good Catholic. I was an altar boy and even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but in the end I felt a huge void. There was something missing.
Busload of faith
I make no secrets about my mental illness and my daily battles with depression, paranoia and schizophrenia. I take medications. I see a psychiatrist. I undergo ECT treatments, and I see a therapist. My therapist recently retired and I was assigned to a new one.
He is a man from India. He is funny, smart and friendly. During our very first meeting, he asked me something I never expected: How is your faith?
My head tilted. My body stiffened. My mind raced: huh? What? Does my insurance cover this?
Bottom line? I am very uncomfortable talking about things like faith, religion or God. But there it was and there it now remains. This gnawing feeling that I don’t have faith. That my world view is missing a very big component. My idea of right versus wrong could be completely off mark. Maybe everything I learned while growing up was a lie. Maybe I need to be open to some new ideas, some new beliefs.
Last week, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a very close and longtime friend that I have not seen in a long time. Up until that point, I was doing a pretty good job of feeling sorry for myself: I have been dealing with some dental issues and corresponding levels of pain that impact everything from eating to sleeping. I am anxious about rising fuel costs and wondering how I will heat my home next year. On and on and on.
Then, I took a breath and asked him how things were going in his life. Without going into all the awful details, his life is severely screwed up right now: his health, his finances, the strains on his marriage and so much more. I could not (and still cannot) imagine going through what he is going through. I asked him. ‘How are you getting through this?” He smiled patiently. “I have faith,” he replied.
I was polite and kept my thoughts to myself. “Dude, it doesn’t sound like faith is working out for you.”
But the more I listened, the more I was struck by his calm in a sea of calamity; of his confidence in a world chock full of doubt. We talked about a lot of things. About the difference between wrong and right, about what is happening in the world today and yes, we talked about God.
Back to politics for a moment. In many ways, I was a lucky kid in my formative years. My political leanings came from being raised by my very liberal mother, whose political identity is slightly left of Noam Chomsky; and by my late uncle who would be found politically right of Ronald Reagan.
Today, I happily engage in political discussions with friends and soon to be ex-friends. Sometimes, I argue simply for the sheer joy of arguing. I seek out controversy and then piss gasoline onto its flames.
But you have to be careful. The most common causes of war? Politics and religion. Choose your battles wisely. Keep your options open. Stand for something or fall for anything. Be brave, but be smart.
Finally, I stopped by one of my favorite watering holes after work yesterday. Also seated at the bar were two older men who were heavily engaged in a discussion about politics, the damn media and their opinions about the crisis in Ukraine.
They seemed clueless that anyone was listening to them talk. I kept to myself, nursing a beer and trying to mind my own damn business. And then someone said something about Saco Middle School and then one of the men said something about Thornton Academy.
I couldn’t help myself. “I graduated from Thornton,” I piped up. The men paused and turned to face me. One of them said, “Did you go to Saco Middle School? Suddenly, a light bulb went off. One of those men was Mr. Boothby, ironically my sixth-grade Social Studies teacher. We both laughed. He then recognized me. I asked about his wife, my beloved second-grade teacher. He hung his head just a bit. She passed three years ago, he told me. She had bravely fought a battle with Alzheimer’s. The grief in his voice was palpable.
I don’t know how I would survive if I lost Laura. I don’t know if I could ever forgive God for taking her from me. I don’t know how I could rise and face each new day. I bet it would take more than a bottle of pills, some talk therapy and electronically induced seizures. I can only imagine that it would take a busload of faith.