Can we all just agree on a couple of things – Part 1 – Introductions run amok
This started off as a brief introduction to a completely different post, and has grown all out of proportion…so it gets its own entry, all to itself.
This Thursday, tomorrow, I turn 35 years old. It’s just another day, I’ll be no more significantly older when the clock rolls over from 11:59 on Wednesday to the first minute of my birthday than I was when the clock rolled over from 1:32PM to 1:33PM last weekend. But the narratives of our lives must have chapter breaks if they’re going to make any sense to us—no one wants to read an 800+ page book that’s one long uninterrupted paragraph—and I’m perfectly willing to downplay the true, measurable importance of a birthday celebration while still allowing myself to get caught up in the metaphysics of the moment.
Plus, presents. It’s an important lesson I learned long before I started worrying about getting old: do not fuck with a chance at free stuff.
So, yeah, 35, a nice round number. Just about smack dab in the middle of the actuarial tables; statistically speaking, I’m just about halfway done. Which is a great way to start filling your head with all sorts of intensely morbid thoughts about the future, and how much or how little of it is left. And amidst the usual resolutions (eating better, working out, less lollygagging around the basepaths and back to the dugout), I’ve been thinking through something that has occurred to me a couple times before, only this time in more depth, to the extent that I’m actually being moved to write about it, and write more than a little about it.
Isn’t it supposed to be that you start off liberal, all bleeding-heart and young and dumb, and get wise and conservative as you get older? I’d thought so, I know the plural of anecdote isn’t evidence, but the anecdotal evidence is strongly in favor of this particular philosophical arc. But damn if it doesn’t seem to be happening completely in reverse for me.
[Author’s note: this next part might get a little long-winded, structured more around the tangents than the substance. Might want to go get a cold beverage and settle in comfortably before diving in, is all I’m saying.]
I used to be very damn sure of what was true, what I believed, and was very willing to say so. I was a born-again Christian starting somewhere in Junior High School, hopefully one of the good ones; I like to think so, at least, and either really did manage to avoid doing any of the more horrific things that Christians can so well-intentionally do, or have successfully fully blocked them out of my memory…which, at this point in my life, works equally well for me.
The goal was to be Christ-like, rather than religious, and so of course that developed into a healthy case of religious conservatism. We tried to keep loving the sinner while hating the sin, but were never too successful in separating the two, especially since we spent all our time at the church (a nice upscale one in Bel Air), so things like homosexuality, drug use, premarital sex, abortions, and all of modern religious conservatism’s most important causes were debated in theory—none of those awful people actually being anywhere near us—rather than in practice. Throw in a healthy dose of Objectivism, mix well with a fierce love of debate, and…oh god, I must have been an absolute holy terror back then. I’m either very lucky—or else was saved by whatever kernel of empathy was in me back then, keeping me from doing anything too publicly stupid—that I didn’t have the ever-loving shit beat out of me multiple times. I certainly look back on myself, especially from when I was 13 to 16, and wish I could give myself a couple of good slaps, just on principal.
And boy, did I love to debate back then. Correction: I loved to prove people wrong. Take an objectivist’s ruthless love of logic and mix it with social conservatism and you’ve got an absolute bulldog who takes more pleasure in winning the debate than in whatever the debate was about. Case in point: I was on the Speech and Debate team in High School, and my favorite forum wasn’t the presentations, or the planned speeches, the carefully crafted and researched rhetoric…it was something called Spar. Two people are picked at random, and given a topic at random—usually something silly, but with just enough of an important issue buried within to give you something to chew on, something like, “Since Santa Claus is most closely identified with Christmas, he should be considered a religious image, and banned from all public places.” And then—the best part—you were assigned which side to argue randomly, whether you agreed with it or not. And those were the best: being up against some obviously hippy-dippy liberal, being assigned their point of view in a Spar, and just mopping up the floor with them with arguments on their behalf that they weren’t even capable of making.
Again, 15 year-old me = arrogant little shit.
And it wasn’t just limited to the academic playing fields; every chance I got, I would challenge someone to explain and defend their beliefs, just waiting for a crack to appear that I could dive into and use to shatter the entire structure.
But something happened. Multiple things, really, but all building to the same eventual result.
First, the church I went to, in the aftermath of a scandal with the head pastor and the corresponding reduced attendance, cancelled several programs and fired the people who had been running them. I understood then and understand now that cash flow was a serious problem for them, they’d leveraged themselves completely, based on the projected growth of the church (and the cash that would accompany that growth), and when that growth not only didn’t materialize but took a nose dive in the opposite direction, well, you have to rethink the way you do things at a basic level.
But rather than reducing everyone’s salaries by a percentage across the board, or doing away with certain luxuries—you know, basic belt-tightening—they just sliced off a couple of limbs and called it good. And was it surprising that the people who were fired were those who were the most vocal during the preceding scandal, who had created the most discomfort for the entrenched church establishment? Again, not then and not now.
But the shock that stuck was that a church—a place whose sole purpose is to help people, it says so in the Bible and everything—would treat their people, their leadership and the hundreds of people who depended on them like so many numbers on a secular corporation’s spreadsheet. That…that did not sit well with me. It certainly didn’t undermine my beliefs, not then, but when it came to the structure of how those beliefs could be manifested in a daily life, in fellowship with others who believed as I did, well, that was going to take some fresh evaluation.
Because, if they claimed to believe what I did, how could they have done what they did?
This wasn’t a de-flowering of naiveté, like discovering that the Inquisition tortured people and also claimed to be Christians, I was well acquainted already at that point with the idea that people could and would do horrible things and name whatever religion was handy to cloak it in justification (and that they might even believe their own PR while doing so). But these people, I saw them almost every day, and sang with them, and took communion with them, and trusted that I was a part of something right with them. Minor disagreements amongst us, sure, they were everywhere, and that was fine, that’s just what happens when you get a bunch of people together, no matter how alike they are in most ways. But this was a fundamental disconnect, as was their refusal to own up to the wrong that they had done when publicly called on it.
And then there were some personal crisis of faith, internally, not on the foundational issues, but again, with how this belief system of mine should manifest itself in the real world. I think I’ve written about all this before, but the brief summary is that, while in the High School Youth Group at my church, I was a worship leader, meaning I played the guitar and led people in singing. And it was a lot more than that…I chose the songs, carefully crafting the experience, deliberately and ruthlessly manipulating the other kids emotionally, using their own beliefs as my playing field, all in the name of…I don’t even know, anymore, that’s how foreign the idea feels to me now. “Setting the proper mood,” I guess, since the intention was to prepare them for the sermon at the end of the night. “Preparing their hearts to hear God’s message,” is probably how I phrased it back then, though the truth is somewhere closer to “Wind them up, then bring them to tears so they’ll be emotionally vulnerable enough to believe whatever we tell them to afterwards.”
And at some point, right around the same time as the church scandal and firings, that just didn’t sit right with me anymore. I’m actively ashamed of it these days, and that shame has been with me for a long time now, nearly twenty years.
Brief aside: you’ll notice that none of this, nor what’s to come, is relating to a specific belief I had that needed to be reevaluated. It’s not like I suddenly discovered that a good friend of mine was gay, and thus I should reconsider my thoughts on homosexuality, or that drugs weren’t all bad, or anything like that. These fissures were far more foundational than that, which I think is kind of the point I’m eventually trying to get to.
So, yeah, my break with the formal church was well underway by then. It didn’t help that in the midst of all this I broke up with my girlfriend of two years, my First True Love, and my friends at the church—these are people I considered my chosen family, who I was planning to spend eternity, both on this world and in heaven forever after, with them by my side—acted kind of evasive, and embarrassed, and ultimately confided in me that they’d never really liked her anyway, while it was my secular friends, the defiantly non-Christian people at my school, especially those in my theatre company, who rallied around me and gave me the love and support that I needed at that point.
And then there were my attempts to re-create all my wonderful ecstatic experiences from High School once I’d graduated, the summer before leaving for college, and had to join the College Fellowship group, surrounded now by completely different people…and yet not only I, but all of them, all of us complete strangers to each other, were so obviously and desperately trying to reform whatever bonds of church community we’d had just a few short months ago, slotting new people into old roles, ignoring how none of it really fit anymore, at least not the way it used to, only there was no structure, no guidance for figuring out how life had changed and how we might be able to recognize those changes and build something new, and different, still tied to where we came from without it just being the same shit, different day, different names.
And you start to wonder just how true any of it is, or if you’re little more than a cargo-cult fellowship group, or an addict, hoping for another rocky mountain high.
And in all of this, I lost my love of debate. Again, there weren’t any specific topics that I felt I was wavering on personally, it just didn’t seem as important to prove them anymore, especially since all the people I knew weren’t around anymore, at least not like they had been, and debating stuff would have meant actively going out and finding someone to debate with, which was too much effort for something that wasn’t particularly driving me anymore. Which was, in retrospect, one of the first signs of the sea changes going on under the surface.
[Author’s note: did I mention already this was going to go on for a bit? I hope you got your cold beverage back then; you might want to top it off now, ‘cause there’s still some ground to cover yet.]
I know I’ve already told the stories here (or maybe here) of how I finally formally broke with the Christian faith—or, at least, with an external definition of whether or not my faith is or isn’t Christian—so I won’t go into detail on all that again, but one of the outcomes of all that was a realization that I wasn’t so sure anymore about what I believed. I had (and have) a few baseline notions about how the universe works, and had (and have) a definitely emotional response to certain things, even if that doesn’t translate into a definite position statement on the subject. By and large, it was feeling to me then that the whole point of life is to investigate things, and keep your mind open to new ideas and new ways to consider those ideas. A rigid mind, one that latches on to a specific point of view and fiercely defends it in the face of all threats, is a useless mind. It’s a rock, stuck in the dirt, contributing nothing except to say that it’s there, right where it is, and nothing else is there.
Which is just an absurd way to live. Think of all the clear and obvious truths that good, sensible people have held to and defended through human history, and how they are so obviously and clearly wrong now that we don’t even get angry over it, just moderately amused at how dumb people used to be. And does anyone really think that people a hundred years from now, or more, won’t look back at all we hold dear now and sigh and shake their heads and smirk a little at those poor deluded fools at the beginning of the twenty-first century and their quaint, child-like (meaning young and dumb, not open and curious) understanding of the world?
So the most sensible way to survive this whole thing with any sort of sanity seemed to me to be to keep an open mind. Focus on the reality of what’s right in front of you—“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water/After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”—and for the rest, spend far more time listening than speaking, considering instead of promoting, and re-evaluating rather than re-trenching.
I am finding that there are some things that, regardless of what people a hundred years from now will think on the matter, need to be spoken about. That I am uncomfortable not taking a definite position on. I am coming to believe that, on certain topics, keeping a permanently open mind for too long turns into apathetic navel-gazing. And that courage is a virtue, and that once something has been considered long enough, it is time to make a decision about it and at minimum speak your truth on it. My mind is still open, I hope, to new ideas and new evidence; nothing is locked in stone, everything is caveated with “With all the evidence available to me, after much consideration, to the best of my knowledge and understanding of how things work…”
But I think I would rather speak now, and risk being wrong—and that’s the actual part where courage comes in, not in speaking your mind, but in doing so knowing that at some point, in full humility, you may need to say, “Well, there’s new information, or a new perspective, and it turns out I was wrong.”—than to remain silent and not challenge those who are so obviously wrong, whatever “right” may end up being.
There was a cartoon in USA Today of all places a few years back, a guy speaking out at a summit to discuss solutions for global warming, there’s a list up on the screen of all the things that they want done, like energy independence, livable cities, clean water and air, healthy children, etc., and this guy has jumped up and is asking, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
And that’s kind of where I’m coming from right now: I’m not 100% sure that I’m right, but with all the evidence available to me, after much consideration, to the best of my knowledge and understanding of how things work, I’m pretty sure that these other ideas are wrong, and if these ideas I’m speaking about aren’t the ultimate truth, and don’t produce a utopia, then they’re at least a thousand times better than the alternatives out there.
And to tie this all back into the question I asked back at the beginning: as I started putting these ideas, these things that I realize I do believe, without any more time wasted navel-gazing on the subject, it occurred to me: I’m a pretty big bleeding-heart fucking liberal.
As you’ll see in my next several posts, all grouped under the general heading of “Can we all just agree on a couple of things?” Which will be posted…soon…depending on how much free shit I get for my birthday, and how long the hangover lasts.