Sunday, February 10, 2013

pilgrims


Reader

I write to you now on what I have selected as my new year. I am using the unisolar Chinese calendar and honoring deities. Also, this is the year of the snake and I was born in 1989.

The last few weeks have been difficult. I didn't like the way my new year had begun; recovering from strep and disillusionment. I was reading about a quarter life crisis. I put myself into basic survival mode. 

I also read the The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides about how four students from Brown managed their first year after school. One was manic depressive and got married and then ran away. One traveled to Europe and Asia to see what the world was like. 

I decided that since doctoral school is currently improbable because of a dual lack of focus and resources, I would educate myself in a way that did not commit me financially or temporally. I decided to attend lectures at the Woodrow Wilson Center while also seeing everywhere that I was as a place to both learn and observe. I decided that both were equally valuable.



"I've been looking for the ultimate reality but right now there are a few mundane realities I'll settle for." Eugenides 


I picked up more shifts at the restaurant and spoke to the owners about my interest in moving upward within the business. I talked about marketing ideas and stayed late to learn the accounting procedures involved in recording and tracking sales at the end of the night. I trained in the kitchen and spoke in Spanish all day. I was promoted to maĆ®tre d'.

I listened, a lot. I listened to customers talk to me about their days and where they were from. 

I spoke to the ambassador to Jordan of the meaning of morality and the necessity of writing without expectations of how it will be received. 

A man eating alone spoke charismatically about what he thought the future held for me and gave me his card to stay in touch. I googled him when I got home and read that he had been forced to resign from a large university for soliciting a prostitute while writing and touring for a children's book. I threw out the card.

I talked to the police officer on the Woodley Park and Adams Morgan beat while I was handing out hummus and coffee. I talked to him about what he had seen working in a rough neighborhood in Memphis and told him about my uncle who had taken a bullet for Ronald Reagan during an assasination attempt by John Hinckley. I explained that my uncle was fine; he was now police chief of Orland Park. After I finished the story he said "Well, shit, I'm going to keep a special eye on you. Are you out here all by yourself?"

My coworkers told me about marriages for citizenship that ended in police intervention and unpaid child support. The first time I overheard a conversation about an unconventional marriage arrangement I didn't get it. I didn't figure out what she was talking about until she said that after the papers came through he left her and asked for a DNA test to get out of paying child support.

I heard about childhoods in Morocco, Lebanon, El Salvador, Belarus, Montenegro, Egypt. They told me of international schooling and of civil war. 

I drank with two lawyers from Poland en route to Qatar and we saw Jill Kelley at a bar in Georgetown. A young consultant told me about her time being unemployed before being hired by Ernst and Young. She told me she worked in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. and she struggled to make rent. She said that she knew it wasn't easy, and told me to remember it will all make me a stronger and more interesting person.

I talked to a provost at an esteemed university right after he found out he was one of three educators from the United States selected to speak at a conference in Brussels about the future of higher education in the European Union. He was ecstatic and I was too.

I asked someone where he had worked prior to his current job and he told me an intersection of two streets. I didn't ask any more questions.



There have been fleeting moments in my life when I have felt more alive than I thought was possible. It seems to happen more while I'm traveling; probably because my senses are heightened as I see everything for the first time. Like all my nerves are on the outside instead of the inside. I remember a few hours after I arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the apartment where I was going to stay. I opened the shutters of the window over the Garden District to see Christ the Redeemer glowing in the plush Brazilian night, vaulting into the night sky.  I started crying I was so happy. I had made it to the image on the poster above my bed in Champaign. I remember wishing I could preserve the feeling and experience it again later, when I started to see regular life as mundane or restrictive, so I could remember what it felt like to be so free.


In The Marriage Plot two students talked about why time seems to go by faster when you're older. They concluded it's because as you get older, each minute, hour, and day is a smaller percentage of the whole as you continue to live for more time. You live longer and you are defined by more time and more experience; you become a patchwork of sensory memories and everything runs together. 

Sometimes that built up experience also causes you to feel things with less intensity.



A friend once told me that you can't relegate truth to one sphere of life or type of experience. He said that you have to search for truth and meaning everywhere, and learn from life in all the ways it can teach you. He said a lot of people tend to focus on a certain part of the whole as being more representative of fundamental truth and importance, but that is not accurate. He said to learn and observe everything around me all the time. Everything is worth it.



The first lecture I attended to furnish my education was entitled "Religion, Politics and Culture in Latin America." It was at 9am on a Wednesday. I couldn't sleep the night before and my desire to go had decreased significantly as I realized how late I was going to be working that night. The choice was taken out of my hands when I woke up at 6:30 am as my roommate's alarm clock pierced through our drafty house. I dressed quickly but attempted to look presentable. I walked out into the freezing January rain and started the walk to the metro. 

About two blocks away from my house my boots lost traction on a soaked sidewalk grate and I fell hard onto my knees. Falling didn't hurt that much because my legs were numb, but my knees started bleeding profusely.

I got to the metro and two trains went by that were crammed with people. I was embarrassed that someone would see my bloodied knees and feel uncomfortable with close proximity so I waited. 

I got off at the wrong stop. I walked 1.5 miles in the rain to the actual stop where I was supposed to get off. 

As I went through the security at the Woodrow Wilson Center the security guard stopped me with an emphatic exclamation that I should go to the nurse in the building. I told him no thanks, it wasn't really that bad and I was late, and he insisted on handing me his water bottle and a bunch of napkins to clean it. I thanked him and walked through security several times until I removed every object that was setting off the alarm.

I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My appearance had deteriorated. My hair and coat were soaked and the blood had coagulated at my knee, making it look much worse than it actually was. My head was pounding and I entered the lecture 40 minutes late, doubting the whole idea was at all worth it.  

I pulled myself together and listened to academics talk about the instinct to draw boundaries between religion, politics and other sects of society and the reality that in life those bleed together.

They talked about the place of religion in human life, about a sense of quest in contemplating what the spiritual dimension of a person's life provides and what it limits. They said that religion gives people a place to interpret what their lives are about. They talked of how to situate the idea that religion and violence are often intertwined. 

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks before about the presuppositions that religion utilizes. About how faith gives answers to the hard questions and a sense of purpose and community. He said a commitment to any ideology completely will provide answers to difficult questions, but to fail to examine these answers is to miss the point. A life spent questioning and analyzing was challenging and perplexing, but by considering and thinking and evaluating, understanding will become more nuanced and closer to what is real. 



"At this time, infatuated with Nietzsche (and half asleep) Leonard didn't want to get into this argument, the truth of which wasn't that all religions were equally valid but that they were equally nonsensical." Eugenides


Many people can not accept something as vast, inclusive and timeless as God or morality. So we have imbued ideas with divisions to make them more comprehensible. We have distorted semantics. We have drawn lines and created false dichotomies. We have understood religion as power. We have waged wars and justified exceptions to morality to contend with difference. We have often utilized religion to acquire or to condemn lifestyle choices. We have made 'religion' by subjecting it to human error and in that way we have reduced it. And the idea is irreducible.  

"If you read any of the mystics, or any decent theology— Catholic, Protestant, kabbalistic— the one thing they all agree on is that God is beyond any human concept or category. That's why Moses can't look at Yahweh. That's why, in Judaism, you can't even spell out God's name. The human mind can't conceive what God is. God doesn't have a sex or anything else." Eugenides 



The scholars at the lecture spoke of the confluence and divergence of religion and morality. They spoke about the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism, victims of violence and victims of fear of violence. They said they were not here solely to build theories, but to use theories to illuminate and understand. They talked about pluralism, microstories and liberation theology.


"The entire class was full of coop types, vegetarians in overalls and tie dyed tshirts. The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific. When they were discussing the concept of ahimsa, he offered the observation that the Sermon on the Mount made roughly the same point. His point, again and again, was that truth wasn't the property of any one faith and that, if you looked closely, you found a ground where they all converged." Eugenides




The scholars said you learned what you truly believed when you were confronted. They said injustice is a historical construct, not something that was supposed to be.

I listened and listened and listened. 


"Gandhi used to write fan letters to Tolstoy. He called Tolstoy his 'great teacher.' So you're right. Martin Luther King got nonviolence from Gandhi. But Gandhi got it from Tolstoy, who got it from Christianity. So Gandhian philosophy really isn't any different from Christian pacifism."

"Are you saying Gandhi was a Christian?"

"Essentially, yes."

"Well, that's wrong. Christian missionaries were always trying to convert Gandhi. But it never worked. He couldn't accept stuff like the Resurrection and the Immaculate Conception."

"That's not Christianity."

"Yes, it is!"

"Those are just myths that grew up around the core ideas." 
Eugenides


Tonight, at the restaurant, I attempted to explain to a couple why I am so fascinated by religion. The couple asked me what it was about it that drew me to it. I told them it had always been part of my life, but as I traveled I started to wonder how divergent the different faiths were that I encountered. I told them that I had initially learned about religion through the construction of difference,  through learning of conquest and through comparison. I told them that I understood why it is often more intuitive to draw divisions than to understand underlying connectedness. 

I said that I was interested because I want to see where the foundations and desires all intertwine. I said I wanted to get rid of my own lens and see things as they really are. I understand that not every option is morally equivalent and there are entrenched institutions that have taken hold. But I have also seen that what people really want from life is mostly to be happy, and for others to be happy too. I said it was a big idea.



I said that, while have made 'religion' a more comprehensible idea by subjecting it to human interpretation and agenda, we have attempted to make it more accessible. But this has done the opposite. To see religion for its underlying connectedness is the the simplest thing of all. 




Reader, I hope this makes sense. What I mean to say is not that all religions are the same, but to say that there are foundations that they share that connect them all. 


What I have gotten from  all this is that our results are shaped by our intentions. We will see what we want to see and the world will show itself as it is believed it to be. By seeing the universality of different interests, beliefs, and realities the world will be a more whole and complete place. What I have gotten from this is that the overriding theme of life is dictated mainly by what you give attention. If you decide that everything fascinates you, the world will never cease to be full of wonder. The world will show itself as sacred if you see that within it.

I told the couple at the restaurant that if I could make my life about understanding these ideas everywhere, I would be happy. They said "We'll pray for you."