Hi. My name is Stephen and I am a Catholic.
This is not a declaration of faith. More of an opening admission. You know, like an AA meeting.
“No,” I said, “I’m not.”
“What are you then?” She challenged, perhaps expecting a nice philosophical diversion.
“I am a Catholic.”
“What,” she exclaimed, “are you taking about?”
I understood her confusion. I’d left the church forty-two years ago. Still, my Catholicism seemed self-evident to me at that moment.
“I don’t mean I’m a card-carrying believer,” I said. “God forbid.”
You’re free to stop believing, but don’t
think for a moment that that’s an out.
“So … what?”
I often tell the story of my old friend Arnie Possick, a young man from an orthodox Jewish family in Brookline Massachusetts. Arnie was ordained into Tibetan Buddhism shortly before me. When we first met he asked about my background and I announced that I was an ex-Catholic.
He looked rueful and said, “If only it were possible to become an ex-Jew.”
I’ve recounted this story to many Jews over the years. All without exception roar with laughter. For them, nothing could be more absurd. You’re free to stop believing, but don’t think for a moment that that’s an out.
On the phone with Melanie that afternoon, taking a sweeping look back over my life, I realized that certain facts were inescapable. Once, I had fervently hoped that by renouncing Catholic doctrine I’d leave behind all it had made of me. As the years passed however, it became evident that I carried around an arsenal of inbred Catholic emotional triggers. There was the instinct to see events gone wrong in terms of blame and punishment; the comfortable ease with which I slipped into neurotic guilt; the awkwardness of being a good boy at heart when I’d have preferred to be bad; above all, there was the unquestioned belief that life should be coherent, explicable and solvable.
These tendencies were too painful for me to face at the time. I wanted out. So, willfully ignoring their subconscious power, I allowed them to guide my exploration into one heretical belief system after another, from Marxism to astrology to Buddhism. On the phone with Melanie, I now understood so clearly the difference between the way that I practiced and thought out my Buddhism, and the way my Asian teachers experienced it.
‘It.’ As if Buddhism were a singular standard! In fact it’s just a label for people who happen to read the same books, more or less. What I have learned from my years is that if anything about life is coherent, it can only be explained by recognizing the compulsions that make us human — in particular our drive to rationalize, and to hope for better.
I am a teacher of personal change. I know you can’t change what you don’t accept. Don’t we all need to understand where we’re coming from, to recognize that our chosen beliefs and forms of expression are superficial, not deep; that underneath all the hope and bluster there is a well-oiled machine of stimulus and response — the animal layer — overlaid by a thicker, more complex but still barely-conscious human layer of rationalized, often absurd, expectations?
Back then I strode confidently into life, as young people are supposed to, without fully acknowledging my expectations. How could I have known them anyway, without hindsight? I had to depend on hope — which is to say the expectations we value most.
What hasn’t changed? I still haven’t quite shaken off the urge for universal answers. As I think about wrapping up this story I’m tempted to say that surely we should all be doing this, that this is what is meant by ‘the examined life,’ that this is what makes us all human.
But I can’t. I’m just too skeptical. Besides, life is mysterious. How could it not be? Our explanations are a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of pointlessness. The need for a point is entirely psychological. It has nothing to do with the world out there — you know, that we used to call God but today call The Universe, as if there’s a difference. I’ve learned that it’s okay if we can’t explain. We’re reminded so often that the freedom to choose is our greatest blessing, but I think not.
What we too easily forget is the freedom to not choose. To allow ourselves, at least occasionally, to stop feeling obliged to explain everything.