I was raised truly agnostic. Growing up in Kansas City, my parents had both been churchgoers; in fact, my father actually graduated from Harvard Divinity School with the notion of becoming a Unitarian minister. For a time, they were regular attendees at Congregational church in my hometown of Providence. Someone even referred to them as “pillars of the church.”
However, by the time I came along, their days spending Sunday mornings in a pew listening to sermons and singing hymns was over. Neither ever explained how this shift occurred, but I know the decision was made without animosity. Both, I believe, had fond memories of going church, of the warm community, and the act of gathering together to think about something bigger than jobs and money and mere survival. This meant no one was criticizing religion in my house and no one was telling me I needed to be religious. Whether I ever went to church or not would be up to me the same as whether I played the drums or went to college.
Apparently, my father’s parents, both very traditional, Midwestern Protestants, worried about my parents’ choice. How they wanted to know, would my brother, sister, and I ever know right from wrong? When my mother shared this with me, I laughed. I didn’t need a book to tell me I shalt not kill.
But I also knew their concerns ran deeper than that, whether they had been aware of that depth or not. I thought of the writer Andre Dubus III. Andre’s a wise, compassionate guy who wrote, among other things, a great memoir called Townie about his relationship to violence. As a boy, growing up without a father around in a rough corner of Massachusetts, he fought regularly and effectively. That fighting continued into his twenties and thirties, and Townie describes how he came to see the men he fought – who were always violent themselves, but always hurting people smaller and weaker than them – as very much like himself: men who learned to fight when they were scared boys.
I loved the book, though I myself never fought. Fighting may have been generally approved of culturally, but I quickly learned I had no desire to hurt anyone else. I didn’t need to fight to learn that: when the opportunity presented itself, I felt repelled by it, the same way I felt repelled by the notion of taking LSD or heroin when the opportunity presented itself or me do so. However, like Andre who had to fight to learn not to fight, I knew people who had to take hard drugs to learn not to take hard drugs.
Just as I had to smoke to learn not to smoke, I had to drink too much to learn not to drink too much and had to worry about what other people thought about my writing to learn not to worry what people thought about my writing. Life is a fantastic teacher. If I already don’t know “right from wrong”–which is to say acting in a way that serves me and acting in a way that works against me–life will surely teach me. It will teach me through the pain of self-rejection, the pain of believing hurting someone else can not hurt me, of using cigarettes or booze to relieve boredom and fear.
It will teach me and teach me and teach me until I learn. It will teach me without judgment or impatience. There will be no rest from this learning. Every single time I think a thought against myself I’ll be taught, every time I’m impatient I’ll be taught, every time I judge another I’ll be taught. I will keep being taught until I accept that the “wrong” thing is impractical because it solves nothing. Violence solves nothing, infidelity solves nothing, drugs and alcohol solve nothing, and worrying about the future solve nothing.
And when I have learned, life will not care about how long it took me to learn, nor will it hold all the “wrong” things I did against me. The forgiveness life affords is instant and complete. Which is why, I think, the last thing we all have to learn is forgiveness. Everyone’s learning, after all, and everyone’s learning in exactly the same way whether they go to church or not, are single or married, gay or straight Democrat or Republican. To name what another person has done wrong unforgiveable is to forget all the learning I have done and how that learning occurred. Like it or not, each of us must at some point do wrong to learn it isn’t right.
I suppose my grandparents believed they had actually learned right from wrong from that book. I’m sure it helped, the same as essays like this can help. It’s nice to be reminded and reassured. But no self-help book, no sacred text, no guru or holy man can replace the ceaseless, perfect, compassionate classroom that is experience. In fact, if that which we have named God is anywhere, it is right there in the present moment, where all experience and learning occurs, right there with us, guiding us back to who we are.
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