Monthly Archives: October 2012

So, what’s your religion?

My initial internal reaction to hearing the above question is usually, “Dang it, what was it again?” I personally don’t feel the need to identify or label my religion, but it helps for the sake of communication. So, here it is just in case I need to remind myself someday.

When people inquire about my religion, I get the sense that they’re often really asking if I believe in some sort of supernatural something. When it comes to God, I consider myself ignostic, which means that I don’t know what you mean when you say God. Once we clarify what we’re talking about, then I may be able to commit a different label with respect to that God.

For most Gods, I’d just be a shade short of atheistic, such as with the God of the Abrahamic religions and gods of other cultural mythologies, many I’m sure I’ve never heard of. I prefer not to use the term agnostic, because that makes it sound like I’m on the fence between yes and no, when I really think that God is highly unlikely. However, atheist is too strong of a devotion, so I guess there’s no nice shiny box to fit this into. Some people may label things that already exist as God, such as the universe, everything, or energy. In that case, I believe these exist, but calling them God is at best redundant. Then there are Gods that are beyond our powers of comprehension by definition, such as simply by saying, “God is beyond our comprehension, so everything that you think God is, he isn’t.” In that case, it’s open ended and over, and I’d rather get to more interesting questions.

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Religion is more than just about a supernatural something or another, but for some reason I get the sense that a religion to many people is a tightly sealed box packed with God, a moral code of behavior, values determining what is important, an understanding of the universe, and our part in it. Some people may be afraid to open the box and examine what’s inside, worried that if one can’t hold its ground, then everything else is threatened. However, just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t mean I don’t believe in morality or live a life void of meaning. Everything is astounding enough as it is, and I don’t need the supernatural to appreciate it.

Might as well start with people. Humanism to me basically means that the well-being of people is important, and it does not really matter if God exists or not. If he does, that’s great. If not, that’s great too. Either way, here we are living in this big world.

Everyone has the same basic needs, such as nutritious food, clean water, clear air, and adequate shelter. We all feel stress from the same types of circumstances: uncertainty, loss of control, lack of information, emotional isolation, and overwhelming conflict. Furthermore, everyone wants to feel like they belong, otherwise we can feel disoriented, rather like a stranger lost in a unknown land looking for something or someone familiar.

Any good religion comes with guidelines, so here are some about being human that I believe in. Note: subject to revision.
1.    Understand
2.    Act with compassion
3.    Do what inspires you
4.    Be courageous
5.    Explore

In case we were feeling too important about ourselves, environmentalism says to hold on a minute. We exist in a context that’s not all about us, and that’s a good thing. One of the purposes of a religion I think is to tell us about our place in the world so that we can relate with our environment in a meaningful way. Many religions may get this sense of connectivity by a history of tradition, a creation myth, or the simple fact that being part of a religion grants you access to a community larger than yourself.

To really understand our place and where we are, I think that ecology -or the study of interdependence- is the best start. Whenever people describe a spiritual experience, the hallmark is often a sense that there is something greater than ourselves and that we are all connected. Well, that is literally true. The Earth is a single field of behavior. It may be hard to fully cognize since the planet is so much bigger than we are, but every now and then, the awareness may hit you inexplicably and without warning.

To give a small example of how we are connected, imagine a closed system with just you and a tree. You are breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, so every time you breathe out, you’re losing mass because there’s a net loss of carbon. The tree on the other hand is taking in that carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, so it’s gaining mass from the carbon in the atmosphere. You are losing mass by breathing, and the tree is gaining mass by breathing, so you are in a way becoming the tree. If you’re worried about withering away, you can eat something. Now, imagine not just you and one tree, but millions of different species linked in a single network along with abiotic components (air, water, earth, etc.), and that’s more or less the something greater that we are a part of within the realm of environmentalism.

Environmentalism even has a moral code. Aldo Leopold, who pioneered the study of ecology and fused ethical philosophy with environmental studies, stated, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

You can determine the environmental morality of your interactions by which type of long-term biological relationship your own relationships resemble. Let’s start with parasitism, in which one party benefits and the other is harmed. Parasites drain the life out of their environment or otherwise make the life of the host more difficult. This can be beneficial to the environment as a whole when the host species is becoming too overpowering, but let’s ignore that for now. Benefiting at the expense of others is not consistent with the values of humanism, and draining the life out of the environment reduces its ability to sustain the life of other organisms, so parasitic people and their constructions are generally considered immoral.

The next type of relationship is commensalism, in which one organism benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed. This situation I think is morally neutral. You’re getting what you need without causing harm, which ought to be the minimum standard with which we evaluate our actions. As is the code for medicine, so to it is for us: First, do no harm.

The third type of persistent biological interaction is mutualism. In this case, both organisms benefit from the relationship. This is the most satisfying and moral type of interaction and one that we should be building in multiple facets of how people do things.

In case we still feel too important, we are probably more insignificant than we are even capable of imagining. That’s the good news. Try justifying that the world was created just for us. Better yet, try justifying that the shade of your skin, your sex, or how much money you have is even important. Try quibbling over an arbitrary patch of desert when it’s a bit of dust on a tiny speck orbiting around a typical star on the edge of an average galaxy out of billions that only make up 4% of the entire universe that may not even be the only one.

All of our problems just look childish. This isn’t an excuse to not solve social problems, but rather a realization that they’re ridiculous. With the Earth in such a larger context,

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
-Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell

In case anyone is feeling small, I leave you this:

“Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars”
-Serbian proverb

Comeback Dating

“If you love someone set them free. If they come back, set them on fire.”
-George Carlin.

This semester, I’ve become aware of just how many friends are involved in on-again off-again relationships or at the very least unstable relationships. Some break up a couple of times a week. Others alternate between breaking up and making up every few months. A few decide to give it another go after large gaps of time apart. This isn’t a surprise since college is not the time for stability, even if we are in love. From a psychological standpoint, we’re in this emerging adulthood stage where we are focused on ourselves, on exploring our identities, and facing endless possibilities and paths. It’s normal to remain untethered. But as a co-president of a feminist organization (Voices for Women) and a sex-positive discussion group (The Birds and The Bees) on campus, encouraging healthy relationships and boundary establishment is sort of implicit in day-to-day life. So it’s ironic that I’m just now realizing how common breaking up and making up (and breaking up and making up) is in my immediate social circle, including in my own experiences. Why is it so common? Is this flip-flopping in relationships harmful or is it a learning experience?

First, it’s important to think about why you are reconciling with this person, be it for the first time or the fifth time. Frustration love does exist; it’s this phenomenon where after getting your happy butt dumped, your brand new ex seems a whole more ideal than they ever did before. It really wasn’t that annoying then they left empty candy wrappers under your bed. You can live with them showing up late for everything. Their petulant temper tantrums at inopportune times were actually kind of cute. Now you suddenly realize that you want them, you need them, you love them. Whether these feelings are valid or not, Joni Mitchell sums it up best; “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. If the opportunity to get back together arises, make sure it’s because you sincerely are interested in attempting to make things work.

Entering a comeback relationship, as I like to call it, can also be tempting because of the familiarity and comfort level the other person brings to the wobbly table. It’s difficult to turn down the comfort of a love that once existed or may still exist. This temptation seems to be at the root of various make-up for a few months/break up for a few months comeback relationships. During a rough patch or period of general uncertainty going back to a familiar and available partner is appealing. But no one deserves to be treated as a crutch. Same goes for those reuniting just because they haven’t found a better catch (yet) and are ambivalent toward their ex rather than acrimonious. Do you really want to settle for a partner who you look at and think “Meh, could be worse”? Or use them as a filler partner until someone better comes along? Both people involved deserve more than that.

For those who split up and reunite more times in a week than I make my bed, think about why you engage in this instability. Do you instigate the breaking up out of insecurity or for a power trip? Do you prompt the making up because of a fear of being alone? What are your true feelings toward your partner? These comeback relationships look like a game to outsiders but there is usually a deeper reason for the high frequency of splits and reunions.

How you go about re-establishing the relationship is crucial to whether it is a healthy reunion or whether it will even last this time around. It ended for a reason. Reuniting without discussing why your relationship faltered in the first place is like trying to fix the same old cracks in the wall by throwing a Beatles poster over them. Love is not all you need. Acknowledge your mistakes. Talk about what went wrong the first time and how it can be different this time around. If you put on those rose-tinted glasses or try to avoid these messy conversations for fear of rocking the boat, comeback relationships will become repetitive and painful.

Also, if you avoid telling friends and family that you’re back together with this person because you’re sure they’ll flip out, you might want to acknowledge why. If a lot of people close to you are vehemently against the pairing, they may have good reasons that are worth considering. These are the people who know you well and want what is best for you.

However, sometimes a comeback relationship can work. Or at least not end in disaster. Maybe the timing wasn’t right the first time around. Circumstances changed but the feelings didn’t. Or maybe nothing changed except the time apart made someone realize they made a mistake in leaving. Hopefully if enough time went by between the break up and the make up, someone learned more about themselves and is bringing a more enlightened individual into the equation.

In a comeback relationship, yeah, you’ve been hurt. The wounds are still there. But I believe it is impossible to be in a relationship and never hurt the other person. You will hurt each other, hopefully unintentionally. Decide if the person is worth the pain. Forgiveness and willing to acknowledge the past and put it behind you will be key in making a comeback relationship work. If you both agree the other is worth the energy, the risk and the need to be vulnerable, then a comeback relationship can be stronger and more intimate than before.