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.
I was talking to my daughter Melanie on my sixtieth birthday, ruminating on the erratic ups and downs of my life. She made passing mention of me as a Buddhist, which is what most people think I am.
“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.
6 thoughts on “Explanation is Futile”
Thank you! My catch phrase of 1990 when asked what am I doing was , I’m in the process of being cursed by the curse of choices. Still, ever wonder, what would my life be like had I chosen this twenty years ago.?? Insanity.
Hi Peter: Ken McLeod wrote a good piece entitled Freedom & Choice. Worth a read.
Again sir, I can tell that you have not left one stone in your subconscious unturned. Your self awareness (mindfulness) is astounding, yet your truthfulness is inspirational. Thank you.
Human IMAGINATION is our salvation (propells us forward) and our demise (discontent with the status quo as the situation can always be better), the Utopia of the previous era becomes the redundacy of the following one.
I am not fully convinced with “the un-examined life is not worth living”.
In reality, an examined life makes for a very lonesome, sensless Universe and makes one wonder as to the “out of order” reality of the human mind.
We spend 90% of our lives attempting to readjust the first inherited and ingrained 10% of our childhood.
You flatter me Ralph. I assure you my subconscious is full of unturned stones. While they are troublesome, I’m not quite sure what I’d do with the rest of my life if I were no longer mysterious to myself. We all need a challenge.
Which is to say that I firmly believe in the examined life — as long as one pursues it tongue-in-cheek. True, gazing into the maw of pointlessness is lonely, but by that measure we understand the joys of being connected. If life has any point, it must be love don’t you think?
I am a very emotional person, so I have to admit that love is a driving force behind many human endeavours, yet love has sooo many facets and transitions that it would be quite unjustifiable to simply claim IT as the answer.
MOTIVATION (encompassing love), conscious or subconscious (generated by biological, neurochemical, contextual, subjective, genetics, “Whatever it may be” needs) is at the base of all value in life. As long as our conscious mind is pre-occupied (be it factual or illusive) we see a purpose and a direction in life, as at times, obsession, despite its negative connotations, does have a certain advantage for the one and the many.
Its not being happy with the state of affairs that has propelled humanity on this trek (not that it is bliss, but definitely better historically).
Hi Ralph: What I mean in this context by ‘love’ is simply the human instinct to connect; usually mistranslated as ‘universal’ love. I don’t think of it as ‘the answer;’ more like ‘the motivator.’