Wednesday, January 08, 2014

the fruitcake years, part 3

You may have noticed that often when I start a series of posts, I seem to be building toward some final point, which never gets written.  I think it's because when I start out, I have a specific point I want to make, but by the time I've typed two or three setup posts, I realize that the original point I was planning is way less interesting than the things that I end up thinking about along the way.  Which is why it has taken me so long to write this post--it no longer seems interesting to me, although it is the one I was planning when I started the fruitcake posts (the others are here and here, if you missed them)(and stub two from the other day was part of that same series).

But I've had so little to post about recently that I decided I might as well go ahead with this one, even though the first two were more than six months ago now. In the first post, I told you about all the new and different things that I tried when I was in my New Age phase, but I could never quite fully commit to any of it because there was always a core of skepticism on my part. At the time, I thought that had to be either a sign that there was something wrong with the ideas, or something wrong with me, because isn't complete and total faith, perfect faith, what we're after in the spiritual life?

That's what I believed when I was an Evangelical. If you have faith, you can move mountains, right? "All things you ask for in prayer, believing, you shall receive" (Matt 21.22). "Be ye therefore perfect, as your father in heaven in perfect" (Matt 5.48). Doesn't leave much room for questions or doubts or skepticism.

Of course, even when I was at the height of my Evangelical beliefs, I had prayers that weren't answered, and I had ways of explaining that to myself. But still I had this underlying, not-quite-conscious belief that doubt was bad, that if I believed something, I should believe it whole-heartedly, without question, without holding back.

But I've come to believe that the combination of skepticism and belief is actually exactly what is needed. Even an Evangelical needs enough skepticism that they don't just accept anything that has a Bible verse slapped on it. It takes some wisdom, some discernment, some skepticism, before you just jump in with both feet and hand your heart over to somebody. Except even I can argue with this. Sometimes you do have to jump in with both feet, trusting in yourself to come out of it OK, trusting in your spiritual mentors to get you through.

This is why I never published this post. :-) It's a bit of a confusing mess.

I listened to a recording of a lecture series by Pema Chodron a few years ago about the Buddhist practice of tonglen, which is the idea of returning good for evil. It's a meditation practice where you breathe in the badness/negativity/evil that you perceive or that is done to you, and breathe out goodness/positive focus/compassion. She said several times that tonglen is an intermediate level practice, not for beginners. Later, when asked, she explained that the reason it is an intermediate practice is because beginners don't have enough sense of themselves and the strength of their goodness/positivity/compassion, so they if they try to practice tonglen, they are easily overwhelmed and taken advantage of by those who wish them harm.

That was the most interesting part of the entire lecture series. Compassion and unconditional love aren't meant to make you into a doormat, they're meant to make you strong. But you can't do that unless you have a strong sense of yourself and your experience in the world, unless you have a healthy dose of skepticism to go with that goodness, mercy, and trust.

Maybe the point is that you need enough skepticism to keep you from being taken advantage of, but not so much that you edge over into cycnicism and lack of belief. It's just as important to be able to discern when to believe as it is to know when not to. You must be innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents, Jesus says to the disciples just before he sends them out "as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matt 10:16).

So, there you go. I promised myself I would go ahead and publish this tonight even though I know it's not very coherent, because after six months of sitting on it, I'm pretty sure it's as coherent as it's going to get. Maybe you all can help me figure this out in the comments.

And btw, I've heard from several people over the last couple of months that they try to comment and Blogger eats their comments. If that happens to you, would you e-mail me? bnelson four seven seven at gmail dot com (insert actual numbers for the number words). I've made a few attempts to figure out why it happens, but the only thing I know is that it seems to help if you have a gmail account (I believe Blogger is owned by Google now, who also owns gmail). But according to what the settings page says, that shouldn't make a difference. At the moment, I allow all comments, even anonymous ones, so that shouldn't be happening.


  1. “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

    If you are certain, totally positive about something, then it takes no faith to believe it. Faith is when you believe while doubting.

    Since this is how I spend my life, the definition really works for me. Sometimes I wish for that absolute conviction, that deep-seated BELIEF, that some people seem to have just because it would be so comforting, but that's just not me.

    I'm off to a class on Abraham co-taught by the rabbi of our local synagogue (on whom I have a total crush) and our associate pastor, Kathryn.

    1. There, see? I knew you could help. Good thoughts. Except sometimes I *don't* believe, very strongly don't believe, but I consider that part of the process of belief. Hmmm. I'm not sure if that's how to word it. That's why this post kept turning into a mess, because I'm not sure what I'm trying to say. Maybe this: somehow it's important to me to be an atheist and a believer at the same time. I have no idea how it works, it just does. For me. maybe not for anybody else. ha. And I am envious of your inter-faith Abraham class! sounds great.

    2. also, is there a difference between doubt and skepticism? maybe that's the problem I'm running into trying to figure this out, I'm talking about two different things. But every time I tried to re-word it to use one or the other, it wouldn't come out right. It's just complicated.

  2. On the comment eating by google - I've discovered that if I log out of my gmail account, it stops eating the comments. Strange, since to post the comment I have to log back in to google, but i've done it several times and it seems to work.

    "She said several times that tonglen is an intermediate level practice, not for beginners. Later, when asked, she explained that the reason it is an intermediate practice is because beginners don't have enough sense of themselves and the strength of their goodness/positivity/compassion, so they if they try to practice tonglen, they are easily overwhelmed and taken advantage of by those who wish them harm." This is a variation on my understanding of forgiveness, and my personal experience is that the capacity to truly forgive (rather than just "doormatting") requires that strong sense of self so that the "trespass" being forgiven stays the other person's trespass instead of sort of slipping over and becoming Cheerio's failure.
    btw - I love the fruitcake years.

    1. Well, that's strange (about having to log out and log back in). I will pass that on to the e-mailers. and.... wow, that is a great insight about forgiveness. I am definitely using that, because I'm working on forgiving some pretty major stuff right now. I find that when it's forgiveness for something big, not just a "you hurt my feelings" type thing, that forgiveness is a process, not just a one time event. And also it helps to remember how much I need to be forgiven for.

  3. Didn't seem like a mess to me. That's the thing I love about the yin/yang symbol--the idea that opposites can exist at the same time. I think to really understand life, you need to accept that. I can believe that skepticism and belief can exist side by side in the same person.

    For myself, I think it's because I simply choose belief. I have a naturally skeptical brain, so I don't need to try hard there. But when it comes to believing in God, I just take the leap. There's no evidence s/he exists, but I want to believe in God, so I do.

    (I read that that's what The Life of Pi is about--choosing which life story you want to believe in. But I haven't read it. Don't read books with animals.)

    1. That is an interesting take on Life of Pi. I'm not sure I buy it, because one of them was the "real" version--they aren't both true. Which brings into question the whole idea of what is "real" and what is "true," of course. I thought it was more about the ways we can delude ourselves about harsh reality--when I read the book, I thought the whole thing was yawn-yawn-ho-hum until I got to that last little bit, and then suddenly I found myself just sobbing for this poor kid who made up an entire world so he wouldn't have to think about what really happened. Hmmm, as a matter of fact, that is relevant to a post I'm writing in my head, except it says the opposite of what I want to say. Maybe I need to re-think. Also, I totally get the idea of choosing belief. Makes perfect sense.