I believed in God as a kid, a little boy damned early to hell, way back when in the series of Midwestern suburbs my family called home. I came to this belief more or less on my own. Dad was raised a Methodist, Mom a Catholic. She’d long chafed against the confines of the Church, where the boys always came before the girls, even when entering the sanctuary for First Communion.
After I was born, over our long northward migration, from Oklahoma to Minnesota, we drifted from one church to another. I remember none of them. Dad tells me we just went to wherever he and Mom felt most comfortable, regardless of denomination, though to appease Mom’s parents we’d hit the local Catholic church during their visits, and pretend to be loyal members. My brother and I were both baptized twice, once at a Methodist church, once at a Catholic, for each set of visiting grandparents. Fortunately they never visited at the same time. After Mom died, when I was 30 years old, I tried to dig into her past a bit, and for a long time I thought the Church had held a serious grip on her. But when I learned that, according to Catholic doctrine, she had damned us to hell by having us baptized twice, I decided she probably didn’t take it all that seriously.
When I was ten years old Mom and Dad separated, and within a few months they both came out of the closet. In the ensuing upheaval, as we tried to adjust to a complicated joint custody arrangement, and to the series of men and women that soon entered our lives, men and women referred to these days as “same-sex” lovers, my brother and I often fell through the cracks. Our parents had a lot to figure out, about themselves, and what they wanted now from life. They were both younger than I am now.
With their new boyfriends and girlfriends, my parents continued to drift, separately now, from one church to the next, their two sons sometimes in tow. I remember two or three Sundays at a Lutheran church, a month or two at a Presbyterian. I still couldn’t tell you the differences between the Protestant religions, and the only thing I remember was the utter boredom I felt in those hard wooden pews.
Still, I remember believing. Maybe it was just optimism on my part. In the years after my parents’ divorce I began to harbor doubts about Mom and Dad’s enthusiasm for parenting, and I suppose it felt better to believe that something up there, or out there, watched over me.
My conception of God had little to do with the churches we’d attended. This God was benevolent but distant, hard to fathom, and neither male nor female. My belief stuck with me, even as a teenager, even as an adult, when Mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I didn’t believe God could intervene in human affairs, and a seething anger at that impotence filled me, as I watched what the disease did to her. Still, I kept believing.
At the age of 29, to save myself from the utter misery closing in around me, I got sober through a recovery program for drunks, one that suggested I cultivate a belief in a higher power of my own understanding. The “of my own understanding” made it easier, and though the understanding of drunks at meetings in the Bible Belt may skew heavily towards that dude in the Old Testament, I got sober in San Francisco, where you could believe in pretty much anything. I heard people talk about trees, or Buddha, or the Group Of Drunks. I heard the stories of atheists and agnostics and the utterly confused, all of whom managed to stay sober. I heard plenty of people say “…my higher power whom I choose to call God.” I heard lapsed Catholics and exiled Mormons and ex-fundamentalists struggle with reconciling their new God with the one they’d always known.
Nobody told me that I had to believe in anything, though my first sponsor said that there would be days when absolutely every single person in my life would fail me, including him, and that on those days in particular a little belief could go a long ways.
This past October marked ten years clean for me, and what I find most liberating about life these days is that I can keep changing. I can start a new job or join a softball team or rethink old beliefs. Sometime in the past couple of years the God of my understanding began to feel…off, somehow. I began to distrust this God, this external power, hovering up there or out there.
And maybe it was fear of the black void I’d find in God’s place, should I give this God up, that made me look around for something else. Something that, based on my own lived experience, felt more true.
I tried to pay attention to those moments when I felt most alive, when I felt plugged into the beauty of the world, when I felt free of the cramped cage of my own self-pity. And without exception those moments happened in the company of other people.
This is still a hard pill to swallow. I crave solitude more often than not, solitude that fills the rechargeable battery on which I run. I’ve made a lot of noise on this blog about my introversion, and at times I’ve flirted with its extremes, grumpily muttering about rabid extroverts, dipping my big toe in the cold pool of misanthropy.
But I can’t argue with my lived experience, with the fact that, as I hugged a friend after an hour over coffee, or watched a friend sing a song on a tiny stage in a Mission bar, or helped Mom’s partner clean their house after Mom’s death - when I put aside my own misery for the five seconds it took to help someone out with their own problems, five seconds after which I turned back and could no longer find my own misery…after all that I began to believe in a new kind of God.
This God had something to do with other people, with the energy that flickered to life when people were good to each other. I am still a Midwestern boy at heart, and I cannot say the word “energy” with a straight face. If I could call it something else I would.
But this God is not some external force outside of myself. This God is not a noun. This God is a verb. This God comes to life only in those moments when people do something good for other people.
This can be a much harder God to believe in. For it shifts the responsibility away from that external figure, away from that Graybeard in Heaven, and puts it squarely on me. On us. If I want this God to come to life I need to pull myself from the bitter swamp of my own morass long enough to help someone else. And just for the record let me say that none of this counts as original; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard over the years that the quickest way to happiness, or contentment, or maybe just a slighter more diluted crankiness, is by showing up for other people. It just took me a while to believe it.
I won’t lie. I find this exceedingly hard to do. Most days I am not capable of it. Most days, as I come to the end of another nine-hour shift at my new job, and I step out on Post Street downtown where it is already dark, and I push my way through the after-work crowds to Montgomery Station, to find that the M train is stuck somewhere under Market Street again and people are standing six deep on the platform and everyone is bent over their phones playing Angry Birds, and my feet hurt and my back hurts and I’m hungry and I know I need to hit the gym and walk the dog and find something to eat for dinner with the Manly Fireplug, the very last thing I feel like doing is keeping a part of myself open to the dead-eyed strangers around me, especially when the track frees up and we squeeze onto a train and some fuckhead with an outdoor voice and a backpack keeps knocking into me.
I still stubbornly protect my right to stay mired in misery. Most days I find it hard to show up for other people, and most days I fail other people, several times over. And if you are a real life friend reading this I have no doubt failed you more than once and I am running the risk of sounding like a major league self-righteous blowhard, and maybe I’m just trying to head you off at the pass here.
And believing in this kind of God is hard because every single one of us is fallible, and every single one of us has failed other people, and every single one of us has sometimes taken more than we’ve given.
And I don’t know if this kind of God, the God as verb, is the real one. Or if there even is a real one. Or if a verb can even count as a God. Maybe I just don’t want to face the black void in the absence of belief. But something about it feels right to me; it’s the highest kind of power I can imagine these days, and so that’s what I’m going to try out, for now.