Friday, October 27, 2006

From April, 2006:

I haven't made much progress on Madame Bovary this week because I found a book called The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong that has had me glued to it like a suspense novel. Ms. Armstrong is, of course, the author of The History of God and a number of other books that I've heard of but never read. I listened to an interview with her a couple of weeks ago and was intrigued by some of the things she said. I love nothing better than a good spiritual autobiography-- as long is it's not entirely tiresome, as some are, and this blog may be-- so when I found out she had written one, I ordered it immediately.

There are a number of similarities between her search and mine, but also some differences. She left a convent in her mid-twenties after 7 years of being a nun, I left conservative Christianity at about the same age after having been raised in it. She had a disastrous experience at graduate school, as I did (although she did finish her thesis, I never did finish mine). She tried a number of jobs before finding the "right" thing-- which I still haven't found, but since she's older than me, this gives me a lot of hope. She has a neurological condition which has overshadowed her adult life and led to lots of time trying different medications to get relief: hers is epilepsy, mine is frequent migraines. So I feel like I've found a kindred spirit, maybe even more than I did when I read that Natalie Goldberg book last fall.

There are lots of things I could write about but maybe I will start with her/my experience in leaving a conservative, all-consuming tradition. We both had good intentions, a passion to find God, to devote ourselves to "his" service, to be utterly and completely dedicated to God. We both found ourselves in a tradition that had a very specific and well-defined set of behaviors and actions that defined how you "should" do this, though hers was much more externally controlling than mine. And we both failed, rather miserably, to achieve our goals by doing the things we were "supposed" to do. I tried so hard. She tried so hard. We both gave it our all, but were unable to find God in the way that it was assumed that one should.

Ms. Armstrong found upon leaving the convent that she got two different reactions from the people she knew: dismay, disappointment, and condemnation from those still inside the tradition, and an insensitive assumption that one was Overjoyed to be Out from all the rest. The people inside the tradition didn't see that finally the act of leaving was the only one she could take, it was just no longer possible to go on. She was, and I was, killing herself by trying to continue. On the other hand, the people outside completely missed that she/I left with a deep, abiding sense of having failed at the very thing that was most important to her/me.

I'm having trouble putting this into words. The deep insight that came to me while I was reading this is that I have never really resolved exactly the same issue. I still carry a deep sense of failure because I've never fully validated for myself that leaving fundamentalism was an act of integrity. I left because the type of Christianity I was being told to do was actually pushing me further away from God. But that is mixed in with that fact that I "couldn't" do religion the way I was being told to do it-- and all Americans know that there is no such thing as "can't," right? so it must have been a failure within myself that caused this-- I still feel that at a very basic level. It works for so many people, why couldn't I do it? And in my case, those people are my family, my tribe, the people I would have done anything to please (at least at a younger age) .

I imagine it would be the same as someone who went into the military with every intention of dedicating themselves to the welfare of their country, a true and real sense of patriotism. but then they found once they were in the service that their temperament was utterly unsuited to military life. Just because of the way our culture is, it would seem like such a huge, monumental failure to admit that and leave. You would be called a quitter, a loser, a failure-- and unpatriotic, to boot. But it might be the only way to stay sane.

I'm not good at validating who I am when that is not who I want to be, when what I want to be is what everyone else wants me to be. I wanted to find God and be a good little girl at the same time. Ms. Armstrong wanted to find God and be the best nun ever. Neither of us was able to do it, but the fact that we failed at that particular path has in the long run become the beginning of a true path.

well, that is a rambling, incoherent way of trying to explain something that has been eating away at me for years, but that I might finally be able to let heal.

Back to Emma next week.

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