*Last year, I spoke at my local UU congregation during a series called, "This I Believe." Congregants were asked to spend some time reflecting on their spiritual beliefs and then speak on them one Sunday. I had meant to post my reflection sooner, but life happened and I hadn't gotten around to it.
So, here, my friends, is my version of "This I Believe."
The first reading today is an excerpt from The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens.
He says this,
“All religions must, at their core, look forward to the end of this world and to the longed-for moment when all will be revealed…
Against this insane eschatology, with its death wish and its deep contempt for the life of the mind, atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it.
Theism cannot coexist with this unexceptionable conclusion.”
In contrast, the second reading is by Rabindranath Tagore. It’s an excerpt from the Poem, Unending love
"I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times...
In life after life, In age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever."
As contradictory as they are, these readings sum up my belief system very well.
In one, we have the famous Christopher Hitchens aggressively rallying against the idea of an afterlife or any ethereal existence outside of the here, the now. In the second, we have a beautifully hopeful verse that serves to cement the idea of two lovers spending multiple lives together.
One is harsh and rational. The other soft and romantic.
And I identify with both. Both of these readings light a fire in my mind and heart. In fact, I believe in the foundation of both of these readings so strongly, that I had a symbol of each of their wisdom marked upon my skin.
I have… three tattoos.
Two of them hold great significance in the way I live my life, and the way I soothe my soul. The third…. not so much. The third was a result of a poor decision at a young age, and I definitely won’t be discussing that one today.
But before I tell you more about two of my tattoos. I want tell you a little about how I got to a place in my life where I felt I needed them.
I grew up in a fundamental Christian household. I was “saved” along with a large group of children when I was about seven years old. To this day I am told that this event alone will keep me out of hell when I die. I was taught that the bible held all the answers. That in order to have peace I had to have faith. I had to believe in the scripture.
Flash forward a couple decades and I learned how untrue that was. At least for me. I had met too many people in college that would have burned for an eternity, just for existing. I had learned too much from my world religions class, and that new found knowledge no longer fit with the beliefs that were forced upon me at birth.
I entered a spiritual crisis that was catapulted by my parent’s divorce and my (at the time) tumultuous relationship with my mother. I held a corrosive bitterness in my heart for all the wasted years I spent living in the fundamental bubble. I unfairly blamed my mother for depriving me of the education my soul so desperately craved.
The heaviness of my heart pushed me to search for something that made sense to me… But nothing ever did. No religion on its own ever spoke to me. I was too suspicious and pragmatic for organized religion, too curious to be labeled an agnostic, and far too much of a dreamer for all out atheism. I didn’t seem to fit anywhere.
But, here’s the thing.
None of us really, completely, fit in the spiritual boxes that have been created for us. There are always exceptions. There are Christians that march in Pride parades. Jews that eat bacon. Muslims that don’t do their required five Salats per day. Atheists that believe in ghosts!
With the exception of violent or otherwise harmful extremism, there is no wrong way to practice one’s chosen faith, spirituality, or lackthereof. But time after time, even when we are rejecting our previous beliefs, we create new spiritual boxes for ourselves, often times locking ourselves inside.
Well, I don’t like boxes and I definitely don’t appreciate being locked inside of one. I am comfortable with several different labels when it comes to my spiritual identity and placing myself inside one box doesn’t allow me the kind of spiritual freedom I require.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no spiritual box for someone who believes in reincarnation, but also describes themselves as an atheist a lot of the time because, sometimes, it’s just easier.
In one of his most famous quotations, Walt Whitman said,
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself.
I am large.
I contain multitudes.”
As humans, our brains, our minds, are deeply layered. Why shouldn’t our beliefs be as well?
And so, with that thought in mind, I came to my beliefs…and then, later, to my tattoos.
The first tattoo, is the one I see every day. It’s on my right wrist, so I see it when I look at my phone, when I do the dishes, when I push my hair back behind my ear. It says, “This life,” and it means exactly that. I have this life. I have one lifetime to get it right. One chance to make a difference. One opportunity to be a good person. To be a good partner. To be a good mother. To be a successful writer. To travel the world. To read the classics. I have this one life to make my dreams come true and I better not waste time on things that do not lead me there.This tattoo is a constant reminder to stop scrolling the internet. To stop procrastinating. To always keep going. To keep trying. There is no afterlife. Nowhere to go after I die. It’s this life. And I have to seize it.
But, as I said, I have two meaningful tattoos.
And in the vein of Whitman, the other one says, “Another life.” It is etched into the skin above my ribs, close to my heart. I do not see it often, but I always know it’s there. Just like the piece of my spirituality that most resembles Buddhism, this tattoo represents the idea that we have many lives before us, and many behind us. It is in this tattoo that I find solace when “This Life” feels like cold steel against my wrist. When I am regretful that I did not pursue my love of singing, I like to tell myself that the talent I possess could mean I was accomplished in another life. When my bitterness at having become a mother when I was not yet ready, threatens to drown me, my life-raft comes in the belief that I will have another life to get the timing right. When nothing seems right and the world starts to close in around me, my safety is in my belief that I have overcome these same trials all before. That I have lived through much worse and in a far more difficult time. I will have… or have had… another life.
I know that some people may struggle with the idea of housing two opposing ideals inside of themselves, but I think if you look closely, you may find that you already do.
Whether its family dynamics, politics, or religion, we all have contradictions in our lives. It is these contradictions that make us complexly woven individuals. Of course, there are some contradictions that would be considered irresponsible or even damaging, but the contradiction of my spiritual beliefs is nothing of the sort.
It is my belief in “This life” that encourages me to challenge an occasional lackluster mind, and it is my belief in “Another Life” that soothes a sometimes aching soul.
So do I contradict myself? Yes, I contradict myself. I am large and I contain multitudes. I don’t fit in any box you could make for me…
Here is where I plug my church a bit...
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