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.

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.

Forgiveness For Wanderers (a sermon I wrote and read at my hometown UU church)

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What does it mean to start over? In today’s competitive world, we are given few chances at new beginnings. In a cumulative GPA system, a brief first-year struggle with chemistry leaves scars that remain on a senior history major’s transcript. Few people dare to change careers late in life, afraid of the blank slate that is their résumé in a new field. Not only are our political, economic, and social frameworks unforgiving of missteps; many of us are bound by memories of when we have felt insufficient, guilty, incapable of meeting the demands that are placed on us. Many of us feel that we, as individuals, are unworthy of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew.

 

The theme of forgiveness plays a major role in Christian theology. I have had countless conversations with my roommate about God’s grace and the powerful meaning that is has in her life. Christ’s ultimate sacrifice was enough for all people to be forgiven for their mistakes, whether they feel worthy of this forgiveness or not. This brings up an intensely personal question that, for me, is fraught with feelings of self-doubt and guilt: Can forgive myself and grant myself the freedom to begin again? Furthermore, do I even have the right to deny myself this chance?

 

At my college meditation group, I take my seat on the cushion each Monday and Thursday with the intention of keeping still for thirty minutes and listening to my breath. Inevitably, though, my mind wanders. I am caught by reminders of work that waits for me outside the chapel door, tangled emotions surrounding relationships, and painful memories that I’d rather not face, not in this moment when I am supposed to be at peace with myself. In this moment, what do I do with these thoughts? I can (and do) dismiss myself as bad at meditation, add on to the pile of guilt that makes me unworthy, inadequate, less than who I wish I was.

 

Ultimately, though, I have learned to forgive myself. I have found that my wandering mind is not a sign of weakness, but that it provides insight into my deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. With each breath, I come to know the present moment, and I forgive it for all its imperfections, the ways in which it is not what I had hoped it would be. And with each breath, I forgive myself for not being who I wish I was.

 

I spent this past fall break on a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. After surviving the grind of midterm exams by envisioning the beautiful lakes of the Upper Peninsula, our first five-mile hike turned out to be a sodden trek through fog, hail, and rain with a high of forty degrees Fahrenheit. We struggled to boil water, shivered violently through the night, and ultimately decided to turn around and hike back to the van in the morning. We were exhausted, defeated by our expectations of ourselves as “backpackers” that we could not live up to. As one of the trip leaders put it, we had lost a significant number of hardcore points. We had negative hardcore points.

 

It was during the return hike that I took this picture of the Lake of the Clouds (above). There is no indication of our frustration and self-judgment; the camera captured a simple moment in which hikers framed a view of purple mountains and steel-grey water. This is the beauty of photography for me: the camera preserves just one moment, exactly as it is, with no judgmental thoughts attached. It is we who later go through our picture library, picking and choosing the photos we like best and using Photoshop to remove blemishes.

 

What if we could embrace the entirety of our surroundings and ourselves, just as we are right now, with total clarity and acceptance? This does not mean totally forgetting our mistakes and living as though we have neither past nor future. Rather, I would argue that we need to deeply investigate our feelings of guilt in order to truly forgive ourselves and learn something from the process. With practice, we may learn to start over at each moment, with each breath, with deep love for ourselves and the world.