We are so busy being busy while life is busy passing us by, and taking other lives along with it
Yesterday The Atlantic published this article, one of two recently, on the demise of the American church community:
It was one of many articles lately bemoaning the loss of the church as an essential institution to our daily lives. I want to address this because Leo Notenboom, one of my Saga supporters, sent me an important email midway through July. I promised to address it. What he brought up is inextricably entwined with church/faith, and its best role in our worlds. First, Leo's note:
A series of events made me think of this as a topic you might be interested in commenting / writing on.
Assuming our goal is to live long and vibrant lives, there's a "cost" we don't often think about until reminded. Loss.
I'm writing is on an airplane headed towards Amsterdam so as to visit my cousin, likely for the last time. She was diagnosed with a rare cancer several years ago, and while it's been under control (not remission, but not aggressively malignant) it's been been hanging over us all. She'd been having problems the last month or so, and last week was diagnosed with a very aggressive related cancer. Weeks, maybe months. But also a risk of sudden death.
This all got me to thinking of the inevitability of death, particularly the deaths of those we care about. If we're successful in achieving a long life, reaching the far end of the longevity bell curve, then by definition we're going to experience a tremendous amount of loss. Many family members, friends, spouses, and other contemporaries are going to pass before we do. Indeed, living long enough we'll also often experience the loss of members of the generation following us.
Then I was reminded also last week that it might not be death, but loss in another form. We found out that my brother-in-law was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's. He's 80, and 15 years older than my wife, but the news remains devastating for all concerned. (author bolded)
One of you is dealing with a devastating diagnosis of a partner, whose decline is inevitable. That diagnosis requires the probable selling of a treasured home, full of gardens full of lovingly-tended lilies and flower beds and memories, which may eventually be sold in order to tend to that partner. That person has a solid support system, which is part of having faith in community to be there when we desperately need it.
In my own life, the last several years have been full of reconstructive surgeries all intended to return me to some semblance of full use of my body. My eagerness to get back to said full use is likely what caused me to take a header off my porch and break my hip. While repairs took less than twenty minutes ( I still can't believe it, but there you are), the reality of how easy it is to lose our mobility is stunning.
That's also loss.
That has taught me to lean into my own growing community and find out just how rich and deep it is.
We lose people, aspects of our lives which we take for granted, we lose parts of ourselves to time and injury, we lose so much over time. How we do that used to be helped enormously and guided by a church home, some kind of ritual and faith which allowed us to make sense of the sometimes terrible awfulness of life and loss.
The need for ritual to give us emotional support when life goes sideways has been in short supply of late, with religion as an institution getting pummeled with bad news all around. Deservedly so, as abusers abound in all areas from sexual predators in all churches (including my beloved Buddhism) to sex trafficking of kids. We've lost faith because in some circles, faith has become a business, commercializing hate and war on marginalized communities in a mockery of sacred teachings.
Too much of the evangelical Right has weaponized Christ and Christianity, among others, for hate, abuse, viciousness in a heartbreaking parody of what Christianity once stood for. Buddhists in Myanmar murder the Rohingya, Hindus murder Muslims, God is on our side, George Carlin was right. I could go on for days.
In this regard, religion has failed society. The ideas behind the great religions have not, but how it's been manipulated has failed us.
Is it any wonder we've left the fold?
However The Atlantic and other publications point out that it isn't that simple. Church is no longer convenient, it doesn't serve the Western lifestyle, it gets in the way of productivity. That false god at whose filthy feet we worship to our great pain, and one which could care less if we suffer. And suffer we do indeed.
The god of productivity only cares that it can bleed us for every bit of work it can, and when we can no longer produce, our empty husk is discarded for the next fool to step up and take our place. We willingly continue this with hustle culture, even as much wiser folks among us are fighting back hard. Lots of CEOs are having none of it, insisting that we return from home, damn the family, damn the new baby, I demand my sixty hours a week. It's a war for the soul of our humanity, and I'm glad for it.
What about the war for our immortal souls? If you even believe in one?
We are making a conscious choice to serve productivity in lieu of something more sacred. Look, I did it too, so this includes me. It was a poor choice.
In full disclosure I am no believer in Jesus Christ. I've read too much religious history and am not convinced. That doesn't make me right, nor does it make me faithless. Like most humans, I value sacred rituals. I even miss catechism, of all things, for it was soothing to a little kid who was being used by her big brother as his sex toy.
There is purpose in faith.
I'm not telling you to head back to your local church. Not at all. I will suggest that you and I pose some hard questions about why having some kind of faith-based activity (assuming we've eschewed ours, and my hand is up here), is too much to ask in a life full of losses.
We all want to live long, and if we do we are guaranteed to be battered by events which are inexplicable. That is where faith comes in.
This Atlantic article, written by a Christian, brought up some of those questions for me.
I agree entirely with this paragraph:
This change is also bad news for America as a whole: Participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity, and more stable families—all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependency.
Whether or not any particular faith delivers as promised is very much up to our individual willingness to walk the talk as proscribed by those religious luminaries about whom much was written, those who have the conceit to interpret their writings or what was written about them for us lay folks, and our own individual desire to face down our internal doubts and demons and have the faith that we can.
Faith takes work. Asking someone else to take the burden off us and make life easier is, well. I'll come back to that.
I've quoted this article before but it's relevant to link it again here about workism:
We are an addictive species. We have simply replaced one attachment with another. Some have moved from one kind of faith to an extreme and dangerous version of same out of a need for black and white answers in a completely grey world.
To my mind, and I may be wrong here, Rabindranath Tagore spoke volumes when he described faith in this way. This appeals directly to my need to know where faith strengthens a backbone (yes I repeat myself here):
“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but
for the heart to conquer it.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore
Tagore, who won a Nobel Prize for his poetry and literature, spoke to the hard individual work that is demanded of us for the peace we wish. He wants a stronger heart, not someone to take his burden.
Faith helps us with loss. Those of us who have strong religious/faith ties have access to guardrails which help us get up, stand up, keep moving in spite of what life throws at us. We often eventually realize that the value of the storm is to help us be others' guardrails, which is why communities of faith, communities in general are so powerful to a good life.
To this, then, another of my favorite Tagore quotes which goes to the heart of where faith's role in society really transforms:
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
The pleasure my neighbors take in helping me deal with a broken hip is joyful. Who are we to take that from them? And who are we to deny ourselves the gift of being valuable to others?
How is it that we're too busy to be of service?
I am NOT including the YouTube/TikTok WATCH ME BE GENEROUS WATCH ME A HERO WATCH BE ME ALL THAT AND A BAG OF CHIPS. This is my neighbor quietly dropping off groceries, my other neighbor checking in, my Saga friends making me laugh out loud. My friend Melissa calling me every single day, without fail.
As Leo negotiates the waters of aging relatives, faces down the loss of a beloved cousin who was given additional years after a death sentence, and eventually faces down, as must we all, his own demise, like you and I must do, he has to find faith that there is sacred sense behind it all. I believe there is.
By this I mean sacred in the broadest possible sense, not just religious.
Whatever church supports you, and for me it's Science of Mind (please, not to be confused with That Other One, you know) I hope you find a home there. I find SOM the most inclusive and least offensive, albeit I still hover at the fringes. I am most at ease in Buddhism, which is not a religion.
My other "church" is community. People who embody courage, curiosity, humor and the willingness to be present when the shite hits the fan, and it will. As Leo points out, the longer we live, the more people we will lose, including children, including beloved neighbors, including people whose lives were cut short by someone else's carelessness.
That recognition, that long life has costs, is driven home by this clip from The Green Mile. John Coffey's gift to his jailor, Paul, has terrible emotional consequences:
I'm very grateful for the perspectives driven by these past many months even if I am champing at the bit to ride, bike, hike, all that. I probably will, at some point, but meanwhile I get to explore all these terribly important issues with you.
I get to sit in my gazebo and gaze, as I did last night, as the last of the summer sun glanced off a doe and her two spotted fawns as they bounded down my hill. And at the turkey hens as they made their way down that same path after cleaning up the spilled birdseed, their chicks following like sea foam around mama's legs. My buddy JC was here in June, we sat outside all day. Since then it's been hard to pry myself off the deck. People teach us what we're missing.
I have for decades also worshipped at the altar of the false god of productivity. It is never ever too late to redirect. I'm not trying to teach anyone anything here; I'm simply asking these questions of myself, and exploring that here.
We are so lucky to be alive. And we are even more lucky for the chance to be of service to each other. I hope my writing is in some way of service to all of you, for your feedback is most especially a service to me. Thank you.
Dear Walkabout Saga Reader:
Thank you so much for taking a few minutes out of your life to read my work. WalkaboutSaga is an act of love and devotion, and I hope that you found value in it.
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Such articles take time, resources, research and effort. Even a small amount of support truly helps me keep this going. In challenging times, I recognize that even a small amount is hard. Those who can give, I appreciate it. Those who cannot, I hope my words are helpful.
My purpose is to Move People's Lives. I can do more of that with your help.
However you decide to partake of my writing, again, thank you.