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Have Empathy When Gods are Shattered

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If you grew up with agnostic parents, your comfort with living without the certainty of God is privilege.

At first brush, it certainly doesn’t seem like a privilege, I realize. But let me put something into context that I believe many take for granted: to know poverty is to know a need so desperate, you are very often willing to beg for answers from question marks.

The lives of the poor are rarely predictable. Poverty isn’t a linear experience. My experience growing up poor in rural America often felt like being trapped in a burlap sack in a dark room full of howling monkeys who every now and again found a baseball bat. The faucet of unpredictable nonsense that shits down on poor children in America offers little space to entertain existential doubt. It’s hard enough to make sense of howling monkeys, let alone challenge the existence of God.

But many of my well-educated friends take their agnosticism and disbelief for granted, their common sense.

In college, my Jewish boyfriend tried his best to observe holidays, despite his professed atheism. While I often tried to understand and respect his practice, I was nevertheless always maddeningly curious about his motivations to retain ritual without belief.

Meanwhile, he struggled to make sense of my belief in God absent ritual. After all, I was raised a Roman Catholic and yet only set foot in a church to vote. Why should I still entertain faith in God? “I have to believe that there’s something bigger than us.” I can remember me saying things like this. “I just can’t suffer entertaining that much doubt.”

Oh, dear reader, I drove him nuts.

Back at Wesleyan, though, I was entertaining doubt. All the time. I lived in the library stacks trying to make sense of my own spiritual unraveling. I read dozens of books on the subjects of Jesus, the Jesuits, Vatican II and Liberation Theology. I read through the New Testament several times over. But then I also read things like Last Temptation of Christ by Kazantzakis and Live from Golgotha by Vidal. Needless to say, I made myself very confused and upset all the time.

I did this largely in private because few of my friends could understand what it felt like to be losing their faith in God. Most, like my boyfriend, grew up with college-educated parents who raised them with the privilege of doubt. So how could someone who never felt certain of God, I asked, know what it feels like to lose Him?

It was lonely to unravel. But more than that, it simply hurts to unbecome, to feel the ideological foundation of life ripping apart. And I experienced this great unraveling once more, five years later, when I found Feminism and had to evacuate myself of misogynistic self-understanding. To every unraveling there is a considerable degree of suffering.

Disabuse rarely visits like the tooth fairy, taking away your rotted belief system and leaving you a shiny new one in its place. It takes years of collapsing and years of rebuilding. Ontology is a big, scary word. Very few people are experts on being. Still fewer I would trust with my life.

So seeing as much of America is in the state of unraveling, let me leave you with this thought:

Much of what Americans need right now is nationalized compassion — the state of our knowledge is moving too fast for the heart.

Also published on Medium.

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