Long ago, when the extended family gathered, I was often outside talking to “God”. Quite an admission for an atheist, but I mean to make a point. Here it is. The word “God” can be defused, neutered, turned into a harmless verbal icon divorced from the worst of its heavy Christian baggage and re-purposed (if desired) to describe personal feelings of peace and contentment.
These feelings of contentment are what I experienced in my youth only when I removed myself from the cacophony of groups in full party mode. It was all too much: the noise, the competitive voices, the one-upmanship, the raucous joke-telling, the teasing, the endless drinking. Such assaults on the sensibilities were often difficult to bear, and so I removed myself from them. It did not make me popular.
In my youth, the G-word was absolute heresy in my family. You could be the Pope himself, but mention the G-word in our living room and you’d be flayed alive. My mother would not even tolerate a religious Christmas card arriving in the mail. “How dare she send us a card like that!” she would rage. “I’ve a mind to call her up right now and tell her I’m mailing it back!” Thankfully, she didn’t call. She just threw the card out. However, the luckless card-sender was still guaranteed an earful the next time she visited.
Though this reaction of my mother’s seemed extreme to me at the time, I did not seriously question dogmatic thinking. I, too, prided myself on firmness of mind, an attitude which sent me over many of life’s more avoidable cliffs. Addiction, for one. Childlessness, for another. Inflexibility set me at complete odds with the world, which is often tolerant, forgiving and kind if you cut it a bit of slack. Dogmatism gave me chronic depression as I repeatedly tried to fit the world into preconceived molds. Square pegs into round holes, as it were. I wish now that it had not been so, but I’m grateful to have fought my way out of the black-and-white abyss into the sunshine of a much greater tolerance and acceptance. Into relative happiness.
Though I’m less afraid now to say the G-word, I still avoid it, as it nearly always triggers reactions, carrying, as it does, so much negative historical baggage. If I use the word, it certainly doesn’t indicate that I am religious. Nor that I attend church. Nor that I believe in that quaint Anglo Saxon father figure in the sky. It doesn’t mean that I read the Bible or that I’m any kind of formal Christian. These things I will always distrust. To me, knowing “God” simply means being humbled daily by the beauty of the universe and all it contains. It means maintaining a sense of ongoing wonder at the complexity of all life. And when I’m feeling this ongoing humility and wonderment, I feel less alone. I can feel love, and loving makes life sweet.
Now, at the end of maturity, and with this new tolerance, do I see the G-word for what it is – a word! It’s only a word, one to which positive meanings can be ascribed, a word which can be adapted, chucked out entirely, or excised from organized religion and used, in the post-modern world, to express love for the kind of natural beauty that renders one speechless. If we slow down, we can develop such love; we can learn to appreciate the vastness of time and space, or “The whole world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower”, as William Blake so aptly wrote. As Sagan said, “We are all made of star stuff.” It’s true. We can all develop humility. We can nurture a sustaining, ongoing love for the world and for other people. But it takes mindfulness and practice. And it takes a quelling of ego.
These days, the G-word represents for me a private and personal spiritual experience involving altruistic love, the kind I now experience on a daily basis. It makes growing old endurable, and solitude wonderful. What I know now is that any true understanding of “God” must be fought for, grown toward, grown into. It’s not something that comes at thirteen, or twenty, or even thirty. For me, it came with old age and adversity, not to mention with considerable effort. Now I have it, this calm feeling of interconnection, and “God” knows, I couldn’t do without it.