Outsider: Struggles with Religious Identity

This post has been years in the making, but it happened to line up with today’s Daily Prompt, which asks bloggers to write about the experience of being “outside, looking in.” When reading this, please understand that these are my own personal experiences. When talking about religion, it becomes very easy to hurt other people, and that is the least of my intentions.

For as long as I have been conscious of my own religious/spiritual identity, I have been aware that I am not-this and not-that. Growing up, the most obvious example of my religious outsider-ness was the fact that I was not Jewish. As an elementary schooler in a highly Jewish suburb of Boston, it was clear to me that I was one of only a few kids in my class who did not board the bus to Hebrew school in the afternoons. In middle school, it was a running joke that you could tell how popular you were by how many bar/bat mitzvahs you were invited to, and I was conscious that I did not receive many. I have already written about the emotional pain I went through in high school when my Jewish boyfriend of almost two years broke up with me, citing my religion as the reason. I have studied Judaism with the rabbi at my college in an effort to learn about the feeling of solidarity and peoplehood that many Jewish people feel, and in so doing to understand my early experiences of outsider-ness with deep compassion for all involved.

My experiences growing up also infused me with a pervasive awareness of being not-Christian. Over the years, I have learned more about the history of my family’s conflict around religion. My father grew up in a family that celebrated Christian holidays but was not meaningfully religious. When he was in college, both his mother and his older brother became conservative born-again Christians. My dad has told me (bitterly) that when he was experiencing depression in college, his mother told him that his only way to be saved would be to convert to Christianity. I grew up with a father deeply resentful of religion, especially Christianity. I see now that growing up, my view of the world was greatly shaped by my dad’s attitudes toward religion and Christianity.

I have always been an anxious person, and I recognize now that I struggled with mental illness for much of my teenage years. I believe that this is what drove me to become involved with my local Unitarian Universalist youth group. There, I learned to talk about important spiritual issues that I had never been able to put into words before. I became close friends with the other girls in the group, and for the first time in my life I felt like an insider, not an outsider.

When I went to college, things got complicated.  My best college friends turned out to be evangelical Christians. As my anxiety became more acute with the stress of school, I was attracted to their profound faith in God and in the world, but I was also afraid of it. I didn’t know how to reconcile my attraction to Christianity with the fact that Christianity had hurt people that I loved. I began to attend meetings of the Christian student organization while at the same time feeling that I was doing something terrible that would hurt my father.

In addition, I joined my college interfaith group in the absence of a strong Unitarian Universalist community, hoping that it would be similar to my high school youth group. Although I found amazing people in the interfaith group, I also found challenges to my own identity. I was troubled by the fact that I had so much trouble describing Unitarian Universalism to my friends from major religious traditions. I realized that I knew so much about what I wasn’t and what I didn’t believe that there was almost no room left for me to believe in anything at all.

As it turned out, my struggle with mental health was what guided my spiritual life into a better place. As my panic attacks worsened, it became clear that I was torturing myself with my ideas of what I should and should not be and do. Ultimately, I had to listen to my own deep conviction in order to get better and be who I want to be. I became involved with the Buddhist meditation group at the suggestion of my therapist, and Buddhist philosophy has become a great influence in my life. At the same time, I do now pray regularly to God and consider myself a Christian, but in a way that is very different from my evangelical friends. I also want to pursue ministry in Unitarian Universalism, since that is the identity with which I grew up.

In a nutshell: it’s complicated. But I have learned so much from embracing the complexity and letting it take me where it will rather than trapping myself with ideas of how things “should” be. I have no suggestions for other people struggling with religion other than that they sit with the confusion and allow it to be the way it is and resolve itself in time. I know it’s easier said than done, and if anyone has any questions about anything I’ve written in this post, please feel free to comment.

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Forgiving Past Relationships

This is a response to today’s Daily Prompt: Beyond the Pale.

When was the last time you did something completely new and out of your element? How was it? Will you do it again?

There’s a long backstory to this, but it’s worth it, I promise! 😛

 

Forgiveness has been a major theme in my life for the past few years. For those of my readers new to my blog, read my title post, Forgiveness for Wanderers, which I originally wrote a little over a year ago. I am immersed in an interfaith community in college, and the human need for forgiveness as a spiritual exercise has come up in a number of contexts. I’ve talked to my Christian roommate for hours about the concept of grace and how it impacts her relationships with others and herself, and my Zen chaplain has given talks about the need to forgive others as an expression of non-attachment and letting go.

 

As many people know, it is a very different thing to talk about spiritual concepts than to practice them. During the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that I hold grudges against a number of people, especially some who were once very important to me. In particular, I feel strong resentment for my ex from high school, Jake (name changed). Jake and I dated for one and a half years, from the time that I was 15 to soon after my 17th birthday. The relationship was hugely important to me at the time, and I still recognize that I grew immensely during the time that I was dating him. Jake ultimately broke up with me on the last day of school of our junior year because he was Jewish and I wasn’t, and he realized that he did not want to be with a non-Jewish person long-term.

 

Now that five years have passed since our breakup, I feel that I can better understand why Jake made the decision that he did. I have studied Judaism with the rabbi at my college in an effort to understand the feeling of solidarity and peoplehood that many Jewish people feel. At the age of 17, however, Jake’s choice was totally incomprehensible to me. Having grown up a Unitarian Universalist, I believed idealistically that all people could connect and marry despite differences. This breakup sent me into a spiral of years of insecurity and questioning of my beliefs. I did not talk to Jake for all of our last year of high school together, despite being in a small class with him.

 

I have come a long way in the past five years. I believe that I am better for my years of questioning myself. I am much more realistic about the flaws of the Unitarian Universalism, but I have chosen to pursue ministry in my denomination because I still feel it has great value. I have learned to choose to have confidence in myself. At the end of this month, I will be celebrating my one-year anniversary with my boyfriend – with whom I’ve seriously and frequently discussed marriage ;).

 

Now I come to story for this prompt – a time I did something new and out of my element. This winter break, I decided to contact Jake to talk again about our breakup and where we are now. I saw this as an opportunity for a personal reconciliation, a chance to live out the values I profess. Jake offered to meet at a local Starbucks, and I agreed. This isn’t a totally feel-good story about how we made up and became interfaith friends – to be honest, it was pretty awkward. Some things that he said about me and about Unitarian Universalism really did offend me. But to me, the most important thing was that I communicated to him (and to myself) that I forgive him. I forgive him and I forgive our relationship for all the pain it has caused me. It’s a new and important step in living out the values of my faith.