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belief death grief Wendy

What I’ve learned from grief

You don’t have to feel any way other than how you’re feeling

I’ve met a few people in their early grief who worry about feeling numb about their loss. It makes them worry that there’s something wrong with them, that they’re cold or callous. Others worry because they can’t stop crying. One father who lost a son confided in me that he felt like it was his role to be sad all of the time.

But no one has (or should have) any exceptions about what you should be feeling. That’s because you don’t have control over your feelings. Feelings happen to you. The best you can do for anyone, including yourself, is be aware of how you’re feeling even if what that feeling is “none” or “nothing.”

It can make you stronger

Once you suffer a devastating loss and come back from it, you now have an internal power that many others don’t: you are resilient. It’s easier to go through life once you have been proven to yourself.

It can make you aware of the precious urgency of life

My biggest fear was that someday I would die. Everything I have ever had would be taken away from me. Every memory, every thought, every sensation would be gone for eternity.

Losing Wendy forced me to face my mortality in a much deeper way. I will die, but fearing death is useless and wasteful. The fact of my death makes me want to live more intentionally while I am able. I try to put all of that energy I used to waste on being afraid into being grateful for the present moment and savoring the time I spend with those I love.

It can reconnect you with those you’ve lost

I was in so much emotional pain after Wendy’s death, that just thinking about her could be excruciating at times. And yet I wanted to think about her, over and over, because I missed her so much.

Everyone’s grief process is different, but I know that if I didn’t keep forcing myself to experience that pain — if I chose to avoid it — I would have prolonged my grief. It was my grief, not Wendy, that was the ultimate source of the pain. My grief was being unable to accept that she was really gone. My mind didn’t want to believe it and kept dreaming up fantastical ways to get back to her.

It took me several years to fully accept that she was gone. I had to believe it and get over the cosmic injustice of her death. I had to let go of my anger at the Universe. That was the pain.

Now I’m able to think of Wendy, see photos and videos of her, have dreams and memories of her and experience the love I still have for her without the acute pain of losing her. I can see the world through her eyes. I can appreciate things for her and feel proud on her behalf. I can access, without fear, the parts of her she left in me.

Categories
belief God

I Am What I Am Becoming

The film Juno has some really great lines, but my favorite is when she confesses to her parents about being pregnant, her father says, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.” She replies, “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.”

What surprises me is that I, now into middle age, don’t know what kind of man I am. Recently I learned one translation of the reply said to Moses when he asked a talking, burning bush, who he was. God said, “I am what I am becoming.”

My old Lutheran bible has it as, “I am what I am.” That translation is authoritative and permits no further questions. It was probably comforting to people wanting to believe in a fixed, omnipotent center of the Universe.

I prefer the idea of an evolving spirit. It fits better in my mind than a fixed God. Change is difficult, but also the most natural thing in the Universe. It makes us stronger.

Categories
belief growth health productivity resolution time

Trusting the Method

“Enlightenment” by marirs

After I got out of the shower yesterday, I curled my arm to look at the size of my bicep. It had been a while since I had done this. I was impressed. It looked noticeably larger than the last time I checked. It looked like a tight ball under my skin with some definition of other muscle around it. When I checked it in the bathroom mirror this morning, though, it looked the same as it always had — sort of a round mass. Perhaps the gym has better lighting.

I’ve been going to the gym for four months now, lifting weights three days a week and doing cardio exercises five days a week. My intention was not to build a bigger bicep, although I hoped for it as a side benefit, along with losing weight (so far, not so much). If I did it for those reasons, I would have given up discouraged months ago.

My intention was merely to build a practice that would improve my health, mentally and physically. I resolved to focus not on the results, but on the method itself.

This is big change. I have always thought of practice solely as a path to improvement. You pick up a musical instrument or a foreign language so that you can play and converse, otherwise it’s a waste of time. That kind of thinking associates practice with wasted time. It longs for a machine or a pill or a shortcut.

A grudging practice must be continually justified. Am I learning fast enough? When will I be good enough to not make mistakes? Why do I even want to do something that requires so much practice? I quit.

If you learn to love the method, the results will arrive. I thought about this recently after a short but wonderful flight through space.

I’ve been adding all sorts of methods to my life — methods for cleaning my house, for writing, and most recently for flossing my teeth. My most cherished method is for meditation. I sit in my living room chair, wrap myself in a blanket, set a timer (first for 10 minutes, now for 20), close my eyes and focus repeatedly on one word that sets my intention for the day. I use every sound to reinforce the word. I breathe the word in and breathe the word out. My heart beats to the word. The clock ticks to the word. Sometimes my dog will bark the word or a loud car will drive the word up the street.

After months of daily meditation, I’ve had some “peak experiences.” Once I felt like I was outside my body. I often see colors and shapes. Mostly these experiences are in the form of a complete relaxation that straddles dreaming and waking.

But even more than those, meditation seems like a complete waste of time. I struggle with it. My nose starts to itch or I get distracted by something. I start to worry that I’m not doing it right.

But then I come back to my focus. That’s what meditation is all about — returning to your focus. You won’t get stronger by merely holding the weight, but by pumping it, bringing it back again and again in repetition, sets of repetition.

Meditation is teaching me to trust the method. Someday it will make flowers grow out of my pockets.

Categories
belief God history science universe

Why We Believe in God

Buddha said he wanted to have a word with me by Stuck in Customs

The March 4 New York Times Magazine had an article about the debate among evolutionary biologists regarding why humans believe in God. Religion is so persistent in human history, scientists can’t help but see it as a trait that has evolved in us, like opposable thumbs or hairless skin. But because it exists in the mind, the debate resolves around whether religious belief is an adaptation or the perhaps useless side-product of other adaptations.

The adaptationists say that religion helps bind us to other people, where we get advantages of the group–others to look after us when we’re sick or with whom we can share resources. Also, being ostensibly religious may help us build our reputation, which would provide access to better mates.

The “useless side product” camp tells us that we are primed to a belief in God by specifically three mind “modules.” The first, called “agent detection,” makes us able to quickly identify threats, such as a bear in the brush or a car pulling out of a drive way, and engages other mechanisms that will preserve our welfare. Sometimes, though, agent detection makes us perceive things that aren’t there–like a better-safe-than-sorry reflex. “Casual reasoning” is our ability to construct narratives, even counterfactual ones, to explain phenomena in our lives. Lastly, “theory of mind” is the ability in humans to recognize–and simulate in their own minds–the thoughts of others. Playing chess and anticipating your opponent’s next move is a good example of this ability, as is the act of persuading others. These three traits, they assert, make it natural for us to believe in an omnipotent, disembodied presence; the ultimate predator, the ultimate parent.

Interesting as these arguments are, they bother me because both presuppose that God does not exist. That idea seems as off-balance as the creationist “intelligent design” view of the world.

To me, a “universal belief” is one most likely to be true. There are all sorts of wacky, local beliefs that are easy to dismiss chiefly because they are local.

We can’t all agree on God’s gender, appearance, origin, special powers, commandments or even whether there’s one or many gods, but every collection of people throughout history has believed in a creative force superior to our own.

What really makes it easy for us to believe in God is the constant reinforcement of cause and effect in our life. The tree falls down because the wind blows. The prey dies because our arrow pierces it.

I had a conversation about God with a guy in a bar once. He said something very profound. “If you ask any religious person what the one constant in life is, he’ll say ‘God.’ If you ask any secular person the same question, he’ll say ‘change.’ Now, one person can be stupid, but not vast groups of people. All these people are correct if God is change.”

Just those three words, God is change makes a lot of sense to me. It answers many of my questions.