meaning of life,  religion,  the ethical life

"Is everything okay mom?"

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“Is everything okay mom?” my sensitive little guy asks me after doing something he knows is wrong. He sounds really upset, so I say yes, everything is okay. We can clean up the mess. This continues over and over for a few days till I stop and say, no, it isn’t okay. Yes, we can clean up the mess, but I don’t want to have to keep doing that.

The messes and problems my children cause are really not all that serious, yet they bring to light a difficult skill and that is the need to be able to maintain a sense of things being alright while acknowledging that something isn’t alright. On the small scale it is about acknowledging the wrong one does without thinking of oneself as a bad person. On the large scale it is about being able to acknowledge the wrong in the world without falling into despair. It is about learning to live in a state of not-alright-ness.

We need to be able to name some things as bad both to be honest with ourselves and so that we can work on changing them. Yet many changes don’t happen quickly (if at all) and we have to find ways of being okay in the meantime.

There are lots of ways in which people attempt to avoid having to acknowledge things aren’t right. Sometimes they want to downplay the size of problems. Sometimes they want to look for the good thing and try to magnify that. Some just try to avoid seeing or learning about the things that aren’t right. A child doesn’t want to come into a room where he did something wrong. A person might not want to talk to a friend she suspects she’s hurt. Someone else might not want to read about the state of the world for fear of recognizing the way in which his lifestyle is made possible through injustices. We might not want to read the email from an acquaintance criticizing something we’ve done, or we might want to demonize the messengers so we don’t have to take their views seriously. We build up opinions of other people that protect our own opinions of ourselves. We build up beliefs that explain away our own faults or justify good in the end.

I probably lean more the other way. I’m less likely to hide my head in the sand and more likely to just see things as all wrong. I can see that things are wrong (things I do as well as things in the world generally) but I have a harder time maintaining a belief that things are alright even while things are wrong. It is a trait I am afraid I have passed on to my children, but I am slowly attempting to correct it.

Good and bad coexist. There is a saying that no amount of darkness can take away the light of a single candle, and that’s true. The bad things cannot and must not erase the good. But we also need to be able to see the darkness, acknowledge it and be okay with it.

As I’ve been thinking about this and struggling to find the right words to write this post, I find myself wondering if this isn’t the heart of religion: how do we accept both good and bad in the world? Please note that this isn’t quite the same question as “why do bad things happen to good people?” That question presumes that bad things shouldn’t happen. It presumes a sense that something orderly and just is controlling things. This question is just slightly different. It isn’t so much why do bad things happen to good people, but how do we explain why things happen at all?

Do we have responsibility for our lives? On one hand there are those who say we have total responsibility and anything we dislike is our own fault (possibly just because we didn’t believe strong enough, or think positively enough or somehow attract all good things!) On the other hand there is the recognition that we are created through our circumstances. We were each raised differently, given different information, ideas, experiences and such. We have different neurochemistry, sometimes creating mental illnesses and addictions. On top of that most situations involve more than one person, so how can anyone really take responsibility for anything?

What do you see as creating the activity within the world? Do you believe in providence, the part of God that makes things the way they should be? Do you believe in random chance? Survival of the fittest? Is there an inherent meaning and purpose behind everything or do things just happen and we can make of them what we want? The stories we create, the way we explain our agency and our lives, I think this is another key part of religion.

Some people would say that they are not religious because they do not believe in a God but the changing nature of the definition of the word God makes that hard to pin down. What God is it they don’t believe in?  There is a beautiful quote from Stephen Roberts that goes: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I’ve had someone say the opposite to me, contending that we both believe in God. This very religious person said whatever God it is I don’t believe in, well, she probably doesn’t believe in that God either, because the God she believes in is something incredibly hard to put into words. The tendency to personify God makes it even harder. Perhaps though God is whatever gives us agency in the world. Perhaps the God each person worships is whatever it is that he or she believes gives order to the universe. Perhaps the difference between atheists and religious people is the extent to which they personify this.

But let’s move back a step to the issue of things being okay or not. There is another aspect to this issue too and that is, where does the meaning attached to an event come from? To put it another way, is an action good because we think it is good, or is there an inherent meaning in the action? Is there a way for things to be objectively right or wrong? If things are not objectively right or wrong – if we can choose how we interpret things – then everybodies suffering is their own fault. But if we acknowledge that there is an objective right or wrong, then we have to accept the possibility that we are wrong.

Religion tries to find answers here too. Some branches of Christianity would assure people that of course they are wrong, but it is okay, because God/Jesus loves them anyway and perhaps that gives them what I’m talking about: the ability to recognize wrong and still have things be okay.

Sometimes I like the concept of being a sinner.  It might sound strange, because I know a lot of people view the idea of sin and forgiveness as part of the repressiveness of Christianity, and yet to me at times those ideas are liberating. I say this because people need a way of being able to say “yes, I did wrong, but I am making amends and can be forgiven.” In some ways it is, I think, the religious way of saying “things are wrong but everything is alright.”

I know many turn to the Bible for the comfort of assurances that everything will work out alright. Some want to believe that God is in control and everything must have a higher purpose. Some want to believe God will correct the injustices of this life in the next. Probably the beliefs I can understand best are those who want to believe that God will be there supporting them through the troubles not necessarily as the agent controlling or changing what happens, and not necessarily changing the meaning of what happens, but somehow still giving us the strength and guidance so that things can be alright no matter how bad things are.

I turn, sometimes, to the Bible for comfort but it is a different sort of comfort than many Christians would seek.  I turn to the laments and complaints to read about living when things are not right. I am drawn to the prophetic writing with its challenge to change our ways and change our society. I am drawn to the times when people struggled with the idea that God seems to be against them.  I turn to the accusations against God, because those accusations are not really against God but against a particular vision of God that no longer matches with the writers experience. I am drawn to the talk that accepts that they have done things wrong, must suffer the consequences but at the same time holds out home or faith. It is not the idea of a judgemental or vindictive God that interests me, nor am I interested in an idealized father figure. To me the important part of the Bible is simply the writings of people who have found a way to acknowledge that things are not alright without it leading to total despair or self-guilt, all the while working to make the world a better place.

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