Monday, April 29, 2013

Living on Purpose

I thought long and hard about my first tattoo.  I got it about a year and a half ago, a simple script across my right arm reading “Life is Beautiful.”

I’ve already told most people the story behind the specific phrase.  It’s part of a longer quote penned by a Jewish woman during the Holocaust: “It still all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful…And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say: life is beautiful.”  Of course, as is true for many others during that time, she died less than a year after writing that.

When I originally read that quotation, it struck me as incredibly wise.  It’s not flippant or unwilling to face facts.  It looks straight into the jaws of the very worst atrocities humankind can commit and dares to assert that life is still beautiful.  A blind faith in the worthwhileness of this life we’ve all been given will never last as long as a belief held with eyes wide open.

But I haven’t told most people the deeper reason.  I haven’t publicly admitted yet why I need the reminder “Life is Beautiful” etched into my skin.

A particularly boring guy tried to hit on me once by reading off my tattoo then asking, “Do you believe that?”  I told him “Yes,” coupled with a dramatic eyeroll that caused him to duck away and avoid me for the rest of the evening.   But the truth is, I don’t always.

To understand who I am today, you have to know the story of this girl:

That’s me when I was about fifteen.  That’s the smile I showed to the few people I interacted with.  But it was at that age that I really began living with a depression that has never fully gone away.

This wasn’t just a “my life kind of sucks” depression, though there certainly was that.  Any fifteen year old who has no friends and is facing major life upheavals in the form of the death of family members and a parent’s dangerous life-or-death surgery will probably suffer from some kind of depression.  But mine went much deeper than external circumstances.  I literally hated myself.  I would have given anything to get out of my own head.  All of that, and a genetic predisposition to depression, made a very bad cocktail for me.

It was at that age that, one cold morning, after struggling with months of depression that felt like a giant black hole in my chest, I woke up and decided that life was not worth it.  I was so depressed, however, that I literally could not move out of bed.  That paralysis forced me to lie under my covers, staring at the ceiling, considering whether or not to kill myself.  If I hadn't had those hours of consideration which just barely came out on the side of "Ok I'll keep living for the present" (mostly because I could not stand the thought of failing, which I knew was likely since the only method I could think of was taking pills), I might not be here today.

But what happened that morning, when I came within a hairs breadth of getting out of bed and walking to the medicine cabinet to attempt suicide instead of walking to the kitchen to make breakfast, has left an indelible scar in my psyche.  Once suicide has been seriously considered, there is always that option.  There is always that out.  There is always that self-destructive impulse that strongly suggests that I do the exact opposite of what I know I should.  When I run into another string of days when it feels absolutely impossible to put one foot in front of the other, there is always the temptation to just end everything for myself.  Just go to sleep forever…

I’ve chosen not to dwell on the negative.  Yes, there’s that little voice in my head that says, “You know you don’t have to do this.  You know life is hard and it’s only going to get worse, so why not just opt out, right now?  I’ll always be here to show you the way when you’re ready…”  But I choose to understand that voice as the voice of an enemy who I’m defeating every day.  Each day that I ignore that urge, that little voice, that self-destructive streak, is a day that I am alive on purpose.  I’m not just here because I was born, I am here because I chose life over death, and because I continue to make that choice.  It’s empowering.  It’s also a lot of responsibility, and I’m pretty sure I am not yet optimizing the opportunities these last eight years have had to offer.

The tattoo, then, is at once a declaration of my choice to live and to believe that life is beautiful and worth the living, even when it doesn’t feel that way, and also a reminder.  My past self is standing with my present self when I need an extra dose of faith (pun intended. You can laugh).  Sometimes I don’t think life is beautiful, but I remember that I’ve been through that darkness before and it will pass, and I will once more find myself believing it so passionately I want to hold onto life forever.  Realistically, I know someday I will die, but when that happens I need everyone to carry on this belief.

I’m choosing to live, in full faith that life is beautiful.  And if you ever lose that faith, let me remind you.  This tattoo is for everybody.

[Endnote: I am not saying that pure will-power is the solution to depression.  I absolutely should have sought counsel as a teenager and if it weren't prohibitively expensive I would probably be seeing a professional even now that I'm doing much better.  Obviously if you're going through depression and suicidal thoughts and deliberate self-destruction you should get help.  That's not a sign of weakness, it is one more way to choose life over death.  It's one more act of faith that life is worth living.]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Questions Are OK

"My version of reality is correct, so my interpretation of your experience is correct.  If you think I should be listening to your story instead of pigeon-holing it into my neat ideas about the universe, that’s just your pride speaking.  You aren’t important at all, except as an actor on the larger stage of this one over-arching story that’s playing out.  By the way do you want me to tell you what that story is?"

That’s what’s going on when someone thinks you’re inviting them to explain the Christian narrative every time you try to tell them about something important in your life.  That’s the subtext.  And if you find it painful and bewildering as an outsider, imagine how impossible it is to even function as a healthy human being  when you grow up with that idea constantly pounded into your impressionable brain.  Your experiences aren’t as true as the things that we’re telling you are The Truth.  Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to figure it out, because we already figured it out for you.  If you disagree with what we think, you are wrong.  For your entire childhood and high school years, if you try to come to a conclusion on your own you are wrong, you are wrong, you are selfish and prideful and sinful.

I am sure that some peoples’ experience of reality has led them to legitimately accept conservative Christianity.  That was not, for them, a wrong choice.  But certain brands of conservative Christianity then become so all-encompassing that it’s impossible for these people to relate to anyone whose experience of life has led them to different conclusions or even to a general “I’m not quite sure” mid-way stage in life.  These conservative Christians think they have arrived, think they have the basic framework of everything figured out, and they have very little patience for people who are still asking honest questions about life and spirituality.  “Why ask questions when I have the answers right here?”

It’s even worse when someone is raised an ultra conservative Christian and then realizes the way they were raised doesn’t square with their experience at all.  When I come to a point where I have more questions than answers, most of the people I grew up with are frustrated with me.  They hand me the same stock arguments I was taught to accept years ago, as though that will solve everything.  Every word they say to me is something I used to believe, something that just doesn’t work for me anymore based on the actual everyday world I’ve encountered.  And I’ll explain, I’ll try to point out some reasons why I am having the question I am having or have reached some conclusion counter to their conclusion, and they will just give me the same conclusion I’m contradicting or questioning.  “You know this, I know you do, so why are you questioning it?  You’ve been raised right.  What’s the matter with you?  You used to believe the truth.”

And that’s a problem which often arises with belief in a knowable, absolute truth: people like to think they’ve discovered it.  Which makes everyone who disagrees with them at best a fool and at worst a stubborn sinner bent on questioning God.

But we’re not handed answers at birth.  There’s no playbook to life.  We can learn from the wisdom of people who have lived on this earth before us, but by virtue of being an individual human being we are each given the responsibility to find our own beliefs.

I have met wiser, more compassionate Christians, who believe that an honest truth-seeker will find the truth.  They still assume there’s a knowable absolute truth, but they don’t think it’s their job to impose it on everyone.  They don’t think people who are asking questions or who are uncertain are sinful.  To these Christians I say thank you for showing me that not all religion is toxic.  And to the exasperated people who don’t like the questions I’m asking or the conclusions I’m honestly arriving at: you believe that God chooses before the beginning of time who is saved and who isn’t.  So relax and have faith that if I’m destined for salvation, he’ll get me there.  Don’t make the process longer by shutting me down every time I try to talk through some of the steps I’m taking on my journey.

Bottom line, whatever you believe or aren’t sure about, it’s your experiences that got you there.  That’s good, that’s how life was meant to work.  But don’t arrogantly assume that the fact you’ve reached your own conclusions gives you power over the experiences of others.  It is my responsibility to interpret my experiences, and I’ll ask for your help if I need it.  You don’t need to think my questions or my conclusions are valid, but you do need to respect me enough to believe I came by them honestly.  Let’s try to do this whole figuring-out-life thing together, and stop playing power games with other people’s personhood, sanity, and destiny.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nature's Pupil

I am just a walker
Through the wild forests and meadows still left preserved
In places we’ve named
Michigan, Vermont, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee
But these nature spots I find have names deeper than I know
Names I think I could speak
If I stayed here long enough
And they know me
When I stand on the edge of a hill tangled with scrub-bushes
Looking down to a flat rock like molded dough
With reeds on the edge, watered by a rare trickling stream
When I come around some corner and suddenly see
A shallow spread of March water
Slinking around the roots of trees
When I climb between tall green ferns
Up slumbering boulder’s shoulders
Slithering down drifts of last year’s leaves
All these places say to me
In voices numerous as life itself
“Here you are, at last!
We don’t need you to complete us
We don’t need to be seen by human eyes
We simply are
But you need us
You need the sight of clouds in the pines on the opposite mountaintop
You need the smell of damp earth promising life after winter snow
You need to feel beneath your hand, beneath your foot
Crumbling moss, tree bark, the bones of the earth
You need to taste water at its source, cold to ache your teeth
You need to know what we are, that we are
In order to complete your soul
You need the unartificed disorderly rhythm
The cycles and the bounty and the rarity we are
This is what you live by, and you need to know it
So at last, here you are
Sit by the roots of your sister tree
And learn.”