Confessions of a Former Christian Blogger: From Doubt to Acceptance

The snow lies in waves like a summer river, polished and bright from the high winds sweeping the country. The temperature is below zero again, and indoor activities have long since lost their luster for the kids trapped by the cold. I watch the wind whip snow devils up from the hills, carrying the drifts up and over and up and over again. When it finally dies down, I think most of our snow will be in Lake Michigan or Illinois.

Winter is a time for hibernating in the colder areas of the world. We pack up our summer clothes, unpack the wool and the down, the coats and the long underwear, the duvets. We hustle around sealing holes and cracks against the wind. Sometimes, when the night chill threatens to sneak in on us around the door corners and window frames, we cover the windows with sleeping bags and pretend we are in Alaska's eternal night.

Doubt has turned into a restful state of not knowing. I tell people I am agnostic these days. I learned long ago not to profess what you will be in the future. One never knows how life will change us. I learn more about agnosticism, gnosticism, atheism, deism…words that had short bullet point definitions in my mind before now have paragraphs attached to them.

My earliest memories tell me I was once a gnostic theist, born into religion and faith as most of us are. I was sure of everything - at least until I finished high school. Because I was in the U.S., the god I was taught was Christian. Eventually, without really knowing why or how or when, I became an agnostic theist: I struggled over issues of creationism vs. evolution and landed on theistic evolution; I didn't understand how the Christian god could apply to the whole world when the whole world hasn't even heard of him, so I tried to find links between Christianity and other faiths, like Buddhism, Hinduism and Muslim. Could we all be worshipping the same god? I wasn't sure - and I didn't think anyone else was, either.

I used to think that as I went through life, I would grow into myself. I would understand myself, the world around me, and the universe a little better each day. It really wasn't until I sat with children dying that I began to understand how little I really knew with any certainty. My own kids, my career, my successes and failures, my cancer journey - all these have taught me, over and again, that I won't be more sure of myself by the time I die. Rumi famously said that we are each "the universe in one drop". We are made of the stars, the same chemicals and bonds. As life goes on, we grasp the fact of our smallness in relation to history, the universe, and the future. We are just a dot on a pointillist painting of billions and billions of dots. The most profound, daring, successful, and intriguing people of any era will disappear, too, into that sea of people that records no names and sees no faces. Death comes to us all, and our legacy is soon swallowed up with it.

What am I sure of, at 34? Only that I know very little for certain. I am certain I cannot explain the universe, not even one person at a time.

The leap to life without god was not made overnight, nor even in one season of my life. It started when I began to question the tenets of the faith I inherited when I was in my teens, facing a potentially terminal heart condition and the constant threat of death lurking around the corner every time I fainted and stopped breathing. I felt doubt as hot and painful as the breath of a stranger filling my lungs. It couldn't be ignored.

In my 20's, I came back to mysticism, but I was a skeptical church-goer at best. I tried all the time to see or hear god. I listened to the wind whispering, I looked hard at every cloud for a face or a hand. I kept a steady stream of worship music playing in my car to squeeze out the lingering questions that I struggled to ignore. My faith became my own. For over a decade, I worked hard at it, studying the Bible more often and with more tenacity than any book I read in graduate school. I used the principles of the Bible's teachings, especially in Psalms and Proverbs, to change my character, eliminating adult temper tantrums, weeding out negativity determinedly as I memorized verses and forced myself to stop "bad thoughts". Including doubt. I tried to kill it every way I knew how.

By 30, I was in serious trouble. Faith had taken a backseat to the constant erosion of the chaos of life. My own brain was trying to kill me, mostly because faith was telling me exactly how horrible I really was on the inside. I lived in fear of someone discovering the "real me" I kept buried, locked away, chained to the darkest and deepest corners of my self.

I opened the door to the cage in the beginning of this decade. I've slowly emerged, in all my failings and all my glorious individuality. I've long since learned to like myself, and slowly like is turning into love. 
It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are. ~e.e.cummings

Memories versus moments

The photos of me sniffing my babies are covered in dust, thick as carpet. I remember when life was like soup broth, thin and warm and full of good things, beauty, joie de vivre. Then came the great reduction, the splitting off of people and things and places and beliefs and safety. Life is kind of gravy right now, not in an easy way, I mean the food. It takes time and energy to produce but you don't need much gravy to live on. I've learned to live with less. I'm still learning to love with less.

Through the fog of depression, love leaks out of me in long wails like a wolf at twilight. The children's happiness is as unreachable as the moon is to the wolf. Instead, my mind goes skipping off across the mirrored pond of memories using shards of broken dreams like stepping stones. They are as hard and unyielding underfoot as real rocks born of eons of pressure and heat.

Memories are mirrors because they only reflect ourselves - our perceptions, our truths, our meaning. There is no going back to understand. There is no way to break the mirror and see through to the objective truth. Many are more beautiful than the actual experience, some are even more ugly. The pain of the insults tossed my way in 7th grade? It's like the state of Texas in the nation of my memory. My brain seems bent to crystallize the bad as if to freeze it's power, to breathe in the good as if to swallow the sensation. Those glaciers of the bad times are fraught with danger - sharp ice, gaping crevices, avalanches and cold temperatures. Go exploring there, and you just might get lost forever.

Acceptance slowly leads me to see those sharp and scary parts of my life kind of like Mount Everest. I know it's there. I can see beauty there from afar. I just never, ever want to try to climb it. The view from the top isn't worth the risk. That sense of conquering? I've given that up with my youth. I don't need to be right; I don't need to be the best or brightest; I just want to survive. It would be a fool's game for me to climb up those memories in some quest for understanding or meaning.

The kids come running to cuddle when I say I need to "soak up some love". They know it means I will open the pores of my consciousness to the moment with all my will. It feels quite literally like soaking something right up into the very core of me. The dried out painful sharp-cornered wad there fills and saturates and becomes forgiving and yielding again.

Sometime soon I will master the closing of my pores to the sadness. I will let memories wash over me and bead up and fall off like water on a duck's back. I say this to myself like an affirmation, as if to will it into being. I am learning to speak positive words in the same certainty and black ink I use for the negative ones. All part of changing the voices in my head.

Meanwhile, I soften my arms for hugging. I curl the edges of my lips up into a half-smile. I bury myself in moments, pour my very soul into them. I hope that's what the world sees. I hope you see my love and not just my pain.

For that would be a successful life.

The long goodbye

Life hurts so much. Takes such a heavy tax from all of us before our bill comes due at the end. I've watched so many die - sinners and saints, spiritual and scientific, pragmatic and idealistic. My heart has been torn in two, and there have been other times when I was dispassionately empathetic, and those times my reflection scared me. I don't recognize the jaded me sometimes.

But regardless of the countless patients, strangers and those who grew into me like family, this is different. I look into my newly godless heart, and I am somewhat surprised to see that it hasn't changed a whit. It still beats solely for the love of the broken and burdened. I don't need a god to tell me to be kind, faithful, loyal, loving. That burning core that is the central self, it speaks to me. "Sky above me, earth below me, fire within me." And this time? The suffering is touching that very most secret and tender part of me that I have worked a lifetime to wall off and keep safe.

Safety is an illusion. Is that part of what keeps people believing beyond rational doubts - the safety of a paradigm where there is a good guy upstairs and a heaven to look forward to? I tell my friend that I need a place on this earth to come back to. To visit her. Because that is the only place I'll ever find her again…in the soil that mixes with her ashes and carries her down down deep into the earth to come alive again in the burning bushes of spring.

Acceptance: OneWord365

"Radical acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is.”
― Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

I sing the words under my breath as the kids jam in the backseat: I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed, Get along with the voices inside of my head… I ask them about monsters, and they say they've never seen any. I wish I couldn't picture mine so clearly. It was next to my bed, not under it. Inside of my head now. I've internalized the voice of the abuser and trauma-driven self-talk rattles around on loop-repeat as my modus operandi.

New Year's Eve, and I'm thinking about the monster. Trying to get a visual. I sit down to draw, sketch a little girl walking in the darkness covered by a cape. The monster grows giant in charcoal strokes as I draw in the shadows behind her. A little girl runs away with dirty hair. A grown woman walks with head down and hands in pockets. There is another reflection, skewed, elongated. Most people can't see the cloud of thoughts I carry with me everywhere. I can feel them buzzing, like exploding sizzles of color in pastels bursting over me. A personal fireworks show whenever I am lost in thought.

Just a week ago, I got lost in the sandstorm of pain, the inevitable tide of emotion in the wake of trauma. I lost myself so completely I tried to lose myself forever. In the midst of the memory-driven panic, something inside of me must have wanted to be found. I called my therapist on her help line, and she sent someone to find me. I spent a few days recovering in the hospital.

This, then, is my one resolution for 2014: stop running - from myself, from my pain, from my past.

I once thought my goal for each day was wisdom. This is too lofty for baby steps toward healing. What I search for instead is mindfulness: the ability to stay in the present moment, whatever that moment is. Keep your mind out of the past and off the future so you can live fully in the now. Which, after all, is the only moment any of us are promised. Mindfulness helps me believe that I'm not in danger when everything in my physical body is tuned to high alert, a knee-jerk reaction that doesn't include forethought. I see other survivors, like me, who jump at sudden noises, squirm in chairs while they try to stay still, pace instead of sit, fidget, gesture, everything a big puff of smoke meant to confuse and intimidate the enemies that are no longer there.

I see my past mistakes as signs of weakness, stupidity, naiveté. What I forget is the courage it took to stand back up each time. The gritting of the teeth as I look terror in the eye and walk on. The fortitude to get out of bed and face the day when you live in fear of being maimed, torn apart, desecrated, destroyed.

This is the year I will accept the past, one memory at a time. I cannot change it; there is no hope for a better past. Acceptance, admitting the truth - that's the only way back out of the darkness that threatens to consume me. I am learning that to accept something as true does not mean you agree with it, like it, want it, or support it. It just means you are saying: this was. This happened. To me. I couldn't stop it, I hated it, it burned my very flesh and altered the development of my mind and personality. This is how I plan to cut the chains that bind me to the trauma and swallow my ability to cope, believe, trust, love, empathize, accept my self as I am now.

I always struggle to pick a word that I want to define my year. I picked Hebrew twice but my love affair with that language is definitely over. In 2012, I picked "succeed". That, more than the words before, became a solid foundation on which to build the next 365 days: my dissertation was approved; I graduated with my PhD; cancer went into remission; homeschooling blossomed; I landed the job of my dreams. It was a really good year - minus the depression and anger and all they brought with them. For 2013, I chose the word "less". I was panicking that money and status and privilege could destroy us. Ironically, I thought of less in terms of "less me, more god". Instead, I ended the year with less faith and somehow, fewer questions. Less soul clutter, less mind pollution, less bondage. Sometimes the heart knows better than the mind what is necessary: last year, it was not less of me, but more. I needed to clear my head of the absorbed misperceptions and negative beliefs. I needed to come to terms with myself, and I did. I ended the year feeling more love toward my self than ever before, a sense of adventure as I began to explore, for the very first time, who I am and what aspects of myself I liked.

This year, I tossed around words like "sophrosyne" - a Greek word often simply translated as prudence, meaning the state of a healthy mind, characterized by self-control, moderation and a deep sense of self. I landed for awhile on a related Greek word, "metanoia" - the journey of changing one's mind, heart, self, or way of life. I considered run-of-the-mill English words like change, being, healing, identity, self, understanding. There were some more heady terms like metamorphosis, transformation, equanimity, mindfulness, intuition, authenticity, unafraid, justice, diversify.

I landed again and again, in the synonyms of the words I pondered, on acceptance. I couldn't get away from it, and for good reason - whether it is accepting the past or accepting myself or accepting my limitations and mistakes, I definitely need more of it. And so I landed, for a few days, on this word. It grew on me. It seemed to encompass all the other goals for the year in one simple term. I write my list of goals from this singular perspective: that acceptance will mean more health, happiness, balance and beauty in our lives, my life.

This year, I will strive to:
1. accept myself
2. accept my past, trauma and all
3. accept the good things in my past as well
4. accept my life circumstances
5. accept my burdens, fears, and failures
6. accept my family, one member at a time, just as they are
7. accept others - students, coworkers, friends, strangers
8. accept ambiguity and uncertainty
9. accept that some answers will always elude me

Have you ever thought about selecting a word that speaks to the personality you want your year to take on? Or perhaps describes a goal you will work on, a concept you are trying to understand, or something you want to change or maintain? Join me at OneWord365 if you wish to read more stories or contribute your own…