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Posts Tagged ‘Depression’

As I indicated in a post last week, I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now, and the second item on the list says SATISFACTION/SPIRITUALITY. I don’t know if I have as much to say about this one as I do about the last, even though in many ways it is bigger. And again, it’s more of a cluster of interrelated issues (that are themselves related to other things on the list) than one discrete one. And it’s a hard one to talk about because it’s vague, abstract, and super personal.

One of the facets of this problem is trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that I hunger for God. I desperately want to know God and be known by God, to experience God’s presence and have that hunger somehow be satisfied in God.

The problem is that God never satisfies, and I don’t know what to do about that.

I can sometimes get little tastes of God’s presence and momentary mild satisfaction in God, but never in the deep, complete sense that I desperately long for. And I only get any of that when I engage in some kind of dedicated spiritual practice. God never calls me; I always have to call God. And even when I call God, never fully satisfies.

Really, it would be easy to just not care about God. That’s what a lot of people do. They’re not worried about it, it doesn’t interest them, so God presence or distance is just irrelevant. God is not a thing they have in their life and they don’t miss God or sense a lack. That would work great for me, except I sense the lack. I have this hunger, and it wants to be satisfied. I want God. I can’t just, not. So here I am.

I have yet to find an approach to spirituality, prayer, spiritual practice, rule of life, or “relationship with Jesus Christ” that leads reliably to any kind of satisfaction in God. Granted, I have never been able to do any of that stuff very reliably or consistently, but that’s one of the relevant variables, isn’t it? A pathway that leads to God that I am unable to walk may as well be a pathway that doesn’t lead to God at all.

This drifts into a second facet, which is that I consistently find that, the darker things are for me (whether it’s a matter of depression, anxiety, or just terrible shit happening), the less I am able to pursue God through spiritual practice. Really, it’s more extreme than that: I am only able to bring myself to pursue God through sustained spiritual practice, but I am only able to engage in sustained spiritual practice when I am in a good place, things are going well, and I am generally emotionally and spiritually healthy. When things are dark, I can’t. And that means that when I need God the most, God is the least there for me.

I mean, on the one hand, I could just totally blame myself. I’m not doing a good enough job of connecting with God, so how should I expect God to be there for me? But I need God to have enough grace for me to be there when I’m unable to reach out for him. I need God to call me when I’m unable to call him. If my relationship with God is solely dependent on my ability to consistently maintain it, then I’m basically screwed. Also, if that’s the case, then God is an asshole, because that’s not how healthy relationships work.

Many very lovely people have recommended all kinds of approaches and spiritual practices to me as ways to connect to God, but most of them are non-starters. I have had some success (during good times) praying the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer, but, like I said, that only holds for as long as things are going well. When I really need God, God is never there. But the hunger stays.

Someone smart told me that the hunger itself is actually a connection to God. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t solve the problem of never feeling satisfied.

Finally, I wonder if I am onto something with last week’s revelation about Mormonism, i.e., that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply (and experiencing God’s presence) is knowing God with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. Even–especially–the Mormon ones. But I don’t know what that looks like. My gut says that the way to connect to God is through depth–engaging deeply in a set of spiritual practices over time, but that also involves choosing a framework to engage with, to the exclusion of others, and I don’t know if that works. So it’s a frustrating paradox. Setting aside the fact that God pretty much utterly abandons me every time I even have a dim twilight of the soul, my intuition says that I could theoretically commune with God in, for example, an Anglican way (the daily office, like I’ve been trying to do), but it turns out that doesn’t work because I’m not an Anglican person. Or at least not just an Anglican person. I’m also, deep in my heart center, a Mormon person. So, somehow I need to figure out how to reach out to God in a way that honors all of my messy pieces, I guess. But I don’t have any idea what that even looks like in practice.

And I know there are some of you out there reading this and thinking “oh man, you’re seriously over-complicating this; it’s really so easy to just (fill in the blank with something trite or vague.” Well, fuck you, you smug asshole. I’m doing the best that I can with the tools I have. I’ve already tried simple and it doesn’t work.

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The Mormon Second Article of Faith says “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This understanding of personal accountability for sin is a rejection of the idea of original sin. On its face, it seems incredibly just. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s misdeeds? Mormons are proud of this doctrine. And while I have not taken a thorough survey of worldwide Christians on the subject, I imagine that the understanding of sin and the Fall that are wrapped up in this Article of Faith are in no way unique to Mormonism.

This understanding of the Fall says that through Adam and Eve’s transgression, humanity became not corrupt but corruptible. This belief holds that we inherit from Adam and Eve only the capacity to sin. As free agents, we are able to choose between sin and not-sin. This is very important: just as we have the capacity to be sinful, we also theoretically have the capacity to be sinless, but as a practical matter, each of us individually fails to do so. The fact that we all inevitably choose to transgress is forseeable and predictable, but really, at the end of the day your sins are nobody’s fault but your own, and the consequences of your sins are justly earned by you and you alone. You could choose not to sin, but you do not. If you simply exercised enough self-discipline, you would be sinless. Thus, your eligibility for heaven is a product of the quantity of sins you have committed. If you have committed more sins than zero, you are ineligible for heaven and in need of salvation. If you have committed zero sins, you are eligible for heaven. Your guilt is your own; you have nobody to blame but yourself.

That’s important. Think about that. Consider its magnitude. You have free agency, and you have personally and individually chosen to sin. Consequently, you are ineligible for heaven unless you, personally and individually, are able to erase the stain of your sin or find a way to get someone else to erase it for you. Because you have chosen to commit a quantity of sin that is greater than zero (whether it is a finite or infinite quantity is, for the purposes of this discussion, irrelevant), you are in need of a quantity of atonement that is greater than zero. The scales must be balanced.

This is a harsh rule, but certainly holding me accountable for the sins I committed is more fair than holding me accountable for the sins someone else committed, right?

Except, that’s not what original sin is all about at all.

I shouldn’t have to sell you Aura Salve to convince you that we are a fallen race living in a fallen world. Just look around at, oh, the entire sum of human history. We are broken and dysfunctional on an individual, cultural, national, and even global level. We hurt each other. We exploit each other. We destroy our environment. We hurt ourselves. We destroy ourselves. We are slaves to our habits, our appetites and our addictions. We are sick. Sure, we manage to do some good things too, but rarely without some destructive fallout somewhere, usually with a lot of it, and the fact that we are able to callously ignore so much of the fallout is even more evidence of our sickness. We are broken. We are fallen.

Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, we have inherited a broken nature. A sin nature. That’s original sin. We are heirs to brokenness. The idea that if we just exercised our free agency correctly we could choose to live sinless lives is a ridiculous and self-destructive notion. We are broken because we have a broken nature. Yes, we are autonomous moral agents, hypothetically capable of making any decision. For that to really play out in practical terms would require a kind of neutral contextual baseline that does not exist. We are not blank slates of pure will born into blank slate world. To an incredibly great extent, the way we are able to exercise our free agency is limited by our circumstances. By our environment. By culture, situation and upbringing. We are invariably the product of our situation, and our situation is a fallen world, and here is the rub: ours is a fallen world for which we, individually, are not responsible.

That doesn’t make us any less broken and miserable. That doesn’t make us any more able to bear the presence of God. But what it does mean is that we are hurting enough as it is without needing to borrow pain. The belief that we are ineligible for heaven because of our particular, individual sins leaves us on a self-destructive treadmill of guilt and shame, because we are never gong to stop committing them. Even if we believe that forgiveness for specific sins is obtainable, it still means a lifetime of feeling like heaven is slipping through our grasp as, no matter how often we believe we can obtain forgiveness, we inevitably sin again. The result may very well be a lifetime of darkness, self-loathing, despair and moral exhaustion: evidence that the notion that righteousness is a matter of disciplined sinlessness, the Second Article of Faith itself, is itself a product of our fallen nature and this fallen world.

None of this is necessary at all. Compared to the enormity of our fallen world and our fallen nature, our particular, individual sins are really kind of petty.

Original sin is thus a profoundly merciful doctrine. It is a realistic doctrine. Yes, you sin. Yes, you choose to sin. But let’s be honest, you choose to sin because you are broken and you are broken because humanity is broken. You were born broken. You were born a slave to sin and darkness.

Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified to balance a cosmic ledger-book and pay off a debt you incurred by committing your specific sins so that you can get a priceless reward you don’t deserve. Jesus Christ was crucified to defeat sin itself and ransom you from the shackles of a fallen world, to work in you a transformation from brokenness to wholeness. Jesus Christ came to redeem you, not from your sins, but from the reason that you commit them–the brokenness that is at the heart of all the dysfunction and darkness in your life. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from your sinful nature. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from original sin.

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

Thank God.

(Author’s Note: This was originally cross-posted from Into the Hills.)

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I served a full-time, two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1998-2000. For two years, I spent every waking moment (when I wasn’t in the bathroom) with a missionary companion. I got up in the morning every day for personal and companion study. I spent all day proselytizing, with short breaks for meals. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t use the internet. I was only supposed to read Church-approved books and publications. I talked to my family back home on the phone only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. I had (part of) one day a week off from study and proselytizing to spend cleaning my apartment, doing my laundry, going grocery shopping, writing letters to my friends and family, and then, if I had any time left over, for recreation or relaxation. I wore a suit and tie (or at least a shirt and tie) and a name-tag every day. For two years, I was not Kullervo; I was Elder Kullervo.

And even though I am no longer a Mormon, I don’t regret it at all.

I was reasonably faithful, I worked reasonably hard, and I did my best to follow the rules most of the time. I matured a lot, I learned a lot, I made a lot of great friends, I learned a foreign languauge, I had a lot of life-changing experiences, and I’m a better person for having gone.

There were a lot of downsides to it, of course–I struggled with feelings of depression and unworthiness the same as many (most? all?) missionaries, but it wasn’t like a constant, horrible black cloud. I manifested the first signs of some problematic anxiety issues that would plague me for years to come, but honestly they run in the family, and so I figure I was prone to them anyway. There were good days and bad days, same as any other time; maybe a little more intense on both sides of the spectrum but it’s an intense couple of years, so it’s sort of to be expected.

One of the reasons I don’t regret my mission (or anything else I did as a Mormon), is that now, in retrospect, I don’t question my motives for leaving the Church. I don’t second-guess myself and wonder if I “decided” the Church wasn’t true in order to give myself a break for being unfaithful. I did everything right. I wasn’t a superhuman (supermormon?) but I did all of the things a Mormon is supposed to do, up to and including an honorable mission and a temple marriage, with reasonable effort and a basically good attitude. So I am confident that I am not now making excuses to cover my guilt, and nobody can tell me that I am. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I’m an ex-Mormon now because I don’t believe that the Church is true, and I don’t think it’s a good church if it isn’t true, not because I am too cowardly to live up to the expectations of Mormonism.

Are there other, better things I could have done with those two years? Other ways I could have spent my time? Sure. And maybe some of them would have been fantastic. And maybe I wouldn’t have had to make some of the sacrifices I did. But you know what? I was born into the Church. I was raised Mormon. I was always going to go on a mission and get married in the temple, and it’s pointless to imagine fantasy scenarios where I didn’t.

I did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do, even though, in retrospect, I was wrong. I’ve grown and changed since then, but I am proud of myself for acting with integrity. I strongly suspect that we’ve all done a lot of things like that, both related and unrelated to religion. It’s part of growing up: you do the best you can with the tools you’ve got, and maybe with more experience or maturity you would have done something different but hey, you didn’t have more experience or maturity back then. So no sense regretting it now.

I regret the times in my life when I have acted out of selfishness or cowardice, not the times when I did what I believed in. When I served my mission, I was doing what I believed in, and so I have no regrets.

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Snake Mountain blues
They got me down low
I could die in the morning
But noone would know
My woman come ’round
My body she’d find
Go down to Dundee
Have her a time

I discovered Townes Van Zandt this week. Hot damn. This is good stuff. Snake mountain’s callin’ me home.

Snake Mountain’s
Gonna crumble Lord
And fall from the sky
Before that woman of mine
Stops tellin’ her lies
If I’d die Lord she’d weep
She’d weep and she’d mourn
Soon as I’s buried
Forget I’d been born

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I am actually writing this post from… the future!

Seriously, in going back and assembling my list of high points along the journey, I realized that there are a couple of spots where important things happened, I didn’t blog about them, and I didn’t go back and explain what happened either. This is one of those spots, so I will try to recap for the sake of historical continuity.  So I am actually writing this post on April 2, 2009 to go back and fill in the blanks, and I am inserting it timewise into the summer of 2008.

In the spring of 2008, I headed east, spiritually speaking. I read a lot of the Baghavad Gita, I watched a lot of Heroes, and my daughter was born. For awhile, I thought that a kind of quasi-Dharmic Hinduism was going to be the path for me. I even went and started a new blog called “Dharma Bum” which I subsequently deleted (after bringing the important posts back here, so they wouldn’t be lost).

My brother came to visit with his wife in April, and he brought a bunch of books about Zen Buddhism, which I had never really considered seriously before. In particular, the book Hardcore Zen struck me as relevant and important. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Zen Buddhism was the right path for me–the truths that it espoused were, for the most part, things that I believed to be self-evident truths about the universe. I had some semantic concerns about distinguishing the Hindu Atman from the Buddhist Anatman, but that was more the kind of thing that could produce long, quirky debates later on. Important was the Zen universe was a universe I believed in, and Zen meditation seemed rally helpful to me.

But there was still a nagging feeling that this wasn’t really the right thing for me. Maybe it was jsut my fear of spiritual commitment, I don’t know. But it seemed to me that the problem with Zen was not that i thought it was untrue, but that it did not provide me with things I wanted and needed, spiritually speaking: a culturally relevant context with ritual, compelling mythological framework, professional clergy, etcetera. Although I couldn’t make myself believe that Christianity was true, I still felt an attraction to the Episcopal Church that in my opinion contradicted my Zen inklings.

My brother’s advice was just to pick one, go with it, and see what happens. And eventually that’s what I did.

While studying for final exams last April, I read C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy, which is an amazing book. I was surprised to see how unconventional Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was, and in the end, I started to feel like the Episcopal Church really was the place for me–a place to be, in fact, even if I was not sure about my belief in Christianity.

So when we moved to New York for the summer, we started attending an Episcopal Church in the Village, and I even went to services at Trinity during my lunch hour downtown. It was meaningful and important to me, but there was some critical quality that was just elusive. I read every C. S. Lewis book I could get my hands on, I prayed and did devotions, and I thought of myself as a Christian, a Protestant, and an Anglican.

Maybe the biggest problem was that, concurrent to all of this, I spiralled into what might have been the worst depression I have ever been in. I can’t even describe it beyond saying that it was an absolute nightmare, and finally getting help and eventually climbing out of it has saved my life. My beautiful and sexy wife was there for me in my darkest hours, even when things got scary and that means so much to me. But in a lot of ways, God was distant, and I couldn’t figure out why. I literally cried out to Jesus to deliver me, but things just kept getting darker.

My love affair with Christianity started to enter a period of uncertainty when we came back to Maryland, partly because I was just plain more interested in Led Zeppelin than I was in religion. I still kept Episcopal Christianity in my head as a spiritual placeholder, but even then I wasn’t sure anymore–not because Christianity hadn’t pulled me out of my depression, because for all I know things might have been a lot worse without prayer and devotion, but just because my interest was fading. Again, fear of spiritual commitment? Maybe. But also Christianity honestly just wasn’t punching all of the spiritual buttons I needed to have punched.

Incidentally, I haven’t really felt the need or desire to go back to Zen. It is interesting, and probably, in retrospect, the religion whose truth-claims are the closest to matching reality, but despite being true, it is so stripped down that it actually lacks Truth.

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I don’t love the idea of agnosticism, but I think it’s where I’m going to end up.  I like religion, and think it would be great to have one, but it seems like they all do such a terrible terrible job of coming even anywhere close to capturing the ups and downs and complexities of “life, the universe, and everything.”  They’re all too simple.  Existence is too complex.

I don’t really think I’ll ever be able to simply adopt a belief system, and I don’t think it’s really possible for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to figure one out on my own that would be anything other than a sham.

I spent my whole life with a solid belief system to fall back on, and now I don’t have one and I don’t think I’m going to find one.  I don’t think Christianity’s going to work for me.  As much as I would love Druidry to work, I don’t think it will either.  I’m sure religions can work and do work for some people, and in fact I honestly think people are better off when they do, but I just don’t see how it can happen.

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I tell myself that I’ll believe when I get a mystical experience of some kind.  Maybe I’m waiting for the wrong thing. If God is everywhere, then everything can be a mystical experience, right? Is it me that makes the critical difference?  That separates the mystical from the mundane?  Is it the interpretation that makes something sacred instead of profane?

Or am I kidding myself here?  Is that really just what I did as a Mormon, interpreting everyhting as a mystical experience and therefore as confirmation for my Mormon beliefs.  Maybe the problem there was that I was trying to get meaning out of mysticism, to use it like a magic eight-ball instead of simply to experience, to “be still and know that I am God.”

Or maybe I just want a mystical experience so bad that I’m starting to waver and to be willing to label plainly mundane things “mystical” just to avoid the sheer disappointment of God never happening.

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One of my biggest frustrations with Mormonism is that I feel like it has left me spiritually crippled.

For example, on the one hand, I’ve spent my whole life believing that the only  valid way to find truth was through mystical experience.  That’s become a fairly deeply-ingrained thing.  I find myself virtually unable to accept religion or spirituality of any kind unless it comes with a spiritual experience to back it up.  Any conclusion I come to or truth I think I uncover, I’m not satisfied with it unless I’ve “received a testimony” of it.  Even if I rationally think that approach is not useful, we’re talking about an instinctive response, the result of a lifetime of spiritual dogmatism.  The other side to this unpleasant coin comes from the fact that because Mormonism claims that spiritual experience is the only validator for truth and that anyone can and should receive such an experience, Mormonism often goes to great lengths to define the most subtle emotional state as “the Holy Ghost.”  The approach is so inclusive and the Holy Ghost gets defined to broadly that it’s pretty much impossible to tell the missionaries about a good feeling you’ve ever had about anything (other than something that’s straight-up sinful) without them concluding for you and trying to convince you that it was, in fact, the Holy Ghost confirming the truth to you.  Because I am aware of that, I’m uncomfortable with looking too hard and trying to define mystical experiences into existence, because I know for a fact that if I set out having already decided that I’m going to find a mystical experience, I’m going to find one by definition if nothing else.

So on the one hand, I am extremely skeptical of mysticism (especially subtle mystical experiences), and on the other hand I feel like only mysticism can show me the right way.  The result is spiritual paralysis, absent a mystical experience that is unrealistically grandiose and unlikely to happen.  and it’s because of Mormonism.

There’s more- Mormonism has left me with a legacy of looking for the “one true church.”  I’ve spent my life in a logical framework where such a thing can and does exist, so it’s hard for me to get away from that way of thinking.  I rationally think that probably there is no One True Church, but my instinct still tells me to look for it.  Not because “I know deep in my heart that it’s true,” but simply because it’s the way I was brought up to think.

Mormism, an extremely demanding religion, has also left me with another paradox.  On the one hand, it has left me skeptical of a faith system that isn’t demanding, because it seems to me that a real faith system, one that is True, must be one that demands virtually everything.  At the sae time, my expericnes with (and in particular with coming out of) Mormonism have left me with an intense fear of spiritual commitment.  The result is again a paralysis.  I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of diving into the deep end and being one hundred percent committed to something, because the last time I did that it turned out to be in many ways a sham, and in the end I ended up walking away.  At the same time, I am completely unimpressed with wishy-washy belief systems that pick and choose or are too vaguely-defined, because I grew up with a very concrete dogma that is now my standard for religious truth.  Mormonism promotes all-or-nothing thinking, so I have a hard time feeling like anything in the middle is even worth my time, but at the same time, my experiences with Mormonism have left me extremely fearful of and very adverse to dogmatic extremes in any direction.  So I may rationally conclude that the reality is somewhere in the middle, but my conditioning rejects that.

There are other examples, I’m sure.  Essentially, I have all these preconceived notions about what religion is supposed to look like, but I’m fearful and averse to religions that look like that.  D’oh!  What am I supposed to do?  Honestly, I blame Mormonism for most, if not all, of my spiritual angst over the last year.  Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of good in Mormonism.  But I feel like leaving it has left me spiritually crippled.  I guess the only way forward is through all of this mess.  To mull things over, work through what I can, and look for those few spiritual aproaches (or nonspiritual approaches) that I can work with for now, and move on to more as I work through stuff.

I guess that’s what I’m trying to do now.  I couldn’t really even bring my belief in God and Jesus Christ out of Mormonism with me, because they were so entangled in the thought matrix that I had grown up with that I really couldn’t extricate them and have anything left to work with, no matter how much I wanted to.  Thus, leaving Mormonism meant a long, slow spiral into atheism.  Once I got to atheism, I decided I didn’t really like it there , so if I wanted to get anywhere else I really had to start from the ground up.

I guess another way to look at it is to see it as a positive thing.  It means some angst and frustration now, but in the end, as I work out all of the knots, I get to completely start over fresh and build something up from nothing.  Maybe that was the only option other than just returning to Mormonism.

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So, my poetry blog isn’t really launching like I thought it would.  I’m badly out of practice, and I’m having a hard time getting started.

On the spiritual/religious/lack-thereof front, I’ve got quite a bit on my mind.  Most of it is still half-formed vague notions, etc.  I’d like to write about them, but in a way I’m reluctant to.  For bad reasons.

One problem I’ve noticed since I started this blog is that I have an unfortunate tendency to seek approbation from random internet people.  I fixate on how many comments I’ve gotten, or how many hits my blog has had in a given day.  Ultimately, it’s a huge distraction from what this blog was really supposed to be about.

It goes even further, though.  In more vulnerable moments, I find myself reluctant to actually articulate what I’m thinking or feeling for fear that the people who were commenting approvedly will start to disapprove.  It’s dumb on the one hand, but at the same time I think it makes sense in a very human way

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Atheism Blues

I think I might not believe in God, and that makes me sad.

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