Life After Life

It’s one of my favorite places to go, that dirt road with the sun angling through the dust trail behind us, my friend and I talking and joking and sitting in silence and feeling the warmth of the afternoon as we hang our arms out the windows and sit tired and content after a day’s work.  He tells me about what he wants to be when he’s older and how his marriage is going and what it was like when his first child was born, and I tell him some things of my own, things I don’t tell others because we’re best buds and know each other more than anyone else.  Mostly we drive and listen and look around and chat about things that don’t matter.

(Picture credit to Lenzcap1)

(Picture credit to Lenzcap1)

It’s all a daydream.   He’s not here anymore and I never rode in that truck in that way but rode in the backseat as a grandson and he as a grandfather.  He was a good one and I was what I was but I go to that place in the country to wonder what it would have been like to know him as a friend and a confidant as I never could have in life.  He was my grandpa and I was his grandson and I couldn’t have understood him if I tried and I didn’t try very hard because I was young and didn’t know how much I should treasure the stories of the older and how much they had created my own stories and how much I would wish I had spoken more while he was here.

I go to this place to wish for a different world in which I could know my mother and my father and my grandparents and my cousins and every person I pass not by the roles we fill in each others’ lives but by the raw person within us, no walls to hide our inhibitions, no image we like and display for others to see, no need to teach or lead or correct or protect, but just an open and impossible knowledge of who the other is and what they think and what they worry about and hope for and who they hate and why.

A rebuttal to myself

I don’t want to get old.  Most of the time I don’t think about it, but when I do, when the image of my own short life is clear, I smother it as quickly as possible.  I don’t want to get to the point of losing more friends than I gain, of sludging through thoughts that used to be quick, of feeling my bones ache more than they already do and of no longer being able to say “This is what I’m going to do” but only “This is what I’ve done.”  I fear death and getting old, and I have to do what everyone does when these images become clear: I “seek forgetfulness in the dream of life.”  (from Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy)

But I’m not sure I need to.

A few months ago I posted an article entitled “The Death of an Atheist,” in which I portrayed my view of death and therefore the meaning of life, which could be summarized by this: to live fully and to enjoy the moment because no matter what I do I will be forgotten.  In a moment of waxing eloquent and somber, I said the difficult truth that “by all realistic expectations I will be completely forgotten within four generations, and mostly forgotten by three” and then extended it to the bold but mistaken conclusion that “I will have been born, lived, and died without causing even a minute difference to the world, or at least not a recognizable one.”

Anticipating rebuttal from a positive-thinking reader, I went on:

“Undoubtedly one of you is saying to yourself, ‘Well, everything we do has an impact and we can never comprehend how much we changed those around us.’   You’re absolutely right.  But go climb a mountain and look out over a valley.  Open up an atlas and look at the world.  Look at the largest cities, and marvel at the size of them, the sheer number of people who are living right now.  Marvel at how small you are.  Realize billions have come and gone, affecting only those in their immediate vicinity, and were forgotten with everyone else.”

The truth in what I said is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, we shouldn’t lose out on life for career or money or fame but should focus on the things that make our lives more full, whatever those things may be.  With Whitman, I was lamenting the “loss of the bloom and odor of the earth and of the flowers and atmosphere and of the sea and of the true taste of the women and men you pass or have to do with in youth or middle age” that comes from a life lived for making money and passing it on, and I was rallying myself against the possible future of a “desperate revolt at the close of a life without elevation,” or the “ghastly chatter of a death without serenity or majesty.”  (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman)

While those things are freeing and true and important to realize, they don’t stand alone.  There is another half to this truth.

But it’s not as somber and it’s much more positive and less depressing, and seems to overcome death with too much ease, and so I wouldn’t see it before: my mind favors the somber over the positive, fearing to be let down by false promises.

I read a certain passage that changed my opinion, that gave such good imagery and argument that my somber mind couldn’t argue against its truth: a passage from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, who doesn’t believe in a “Christian” afterlife, slightly abridged here.

All that a person does or thinks is of consequence.  Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in a day or a month or any part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death but the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime.  The indirect is always as great and real as the direct.  The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body.  Not one name of word or deed . . . ever is or ever can be stamped on the programme but it is duly realized and returned, and that returned in further performances . . .  and they returned again. …

 

Little or big, learned or unlearned, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe and through the whole scope of it forever.  …

 

If the savage or felon is wise it is well . . . if the greatest poet or savan is wise it is simply the same . . . if the President or chief justice is wise it is the same . . . if the young mechanic or farmer is wise it is no more or less . . . if the prostitute is wise it is no more nor less.  The interest will come round . . . all will come round.  All the best actions of war and peace . . . all help given to relatives and strangers and the poor and old and sorrowful and young children and widows and the sick, and to all shunned persons . . . all  furtherance of fugitives and of the escape of slaves . . . all the self-denial that stood steady and aloof on wrecks and saw others take the seats of the boats . . . all offering of substance or life for the good old cause, or for a friend’s sake or opinion’s sake . . . all pains of enthusiast scoffed at by their neighbors . . . all the vast sweet love and precious suffering of mothers . . . all the grandeur and good of the few ancient nations whose fragments of annals we inherit . . . and all the good of the hundreds of far mightier and more ancient nations unkown to us by name or date or location . . . all that is manfully begun, whether it succeeded or no . . . all that has at any time been well suggested out of the divine heart of man or by the divinity of his mouth or by the shaping of his great hands . . . and all that is well thought or done this day on any part of the surface of the globe . . . or that is henceforth to be well thought or done by you whoever you are, or by any one–these singly and wholly inured (hardened/fixed) at their time and inure now and will inure always to the identities from which they sprung or shall spring. . . . Did you guess any of them lived only its moment?  The world does not so exist . . . no parts palpable or impalpable so exist . . . no result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot.

The Indirect Life

I can’t go back and ride with my grandpa in that imaginary truck in our imaginary 20’s.  I won’t know him as he was internally, nor will I know you, or my mom, or even all the hidden thoughts of my wife.  As social as we are, we stand on the islands of our own experience, seeing the world through our own eyes, and those eyes alone, and it is for that reason that the world moves forward after we are gone and may indeed quickly forget our names.

But our actions–every single action, thought, or word–has an affect.  It lives on through others.  This isn’t meant to engender guilt in ourselves for the wrong things we do, but to fill us with the purpose of knowing our life goes on long after we live, an “indirect life” through those we’ve influenced in any of thousands of possible ways.  By choosing the good, kind, empathetic, loving, encouraging, and understanding thoughts, we leave behind a legacy of goodness that will never fade.  Truly.

Complexity/Rigidity Fallacy

We see the history of the world in all its complexity and it gives the present a feeling of predestination – that things couldn’t really have turned out differently than they had.  We predict the future based on the past and see the same things: mammoth political forces shaping a future in which we have little power or influence.

But our lives are better understood through the experience of the author of any great book.  Read any of these and the thought that will continually press itself into your mind will be, “How in the hell did someone think all of this up?”  The plot is beautiful, or tragic, or whatever it is, and we can’t see any other way it could have turned out differently.  It has been printed, the words fixed to the page and sent out over the world.  It is in the past.  But in the moment of creation, it was fluid.  Characters came into the story based on people the author had just met that week – some person who said or did something that stood out in the author’s mind.  Any little thing that happened in the author’s life would have surely influenced the story.

What would our world be like without some of our great leaders and thinkers?  What if Plato had never paused to think?  What if Dickens had never written?  What if Shakespeare didn’t think he could do anything remarkable?  What if Hitler had been ignored by the masses or if Churchill didn’t inspire Great Britain with his words?

The world would be different–immeasurably so–and we have no idea exactly how different.

The present is fluid.  It is for us to play with, to create with, to mold into what we will.  The words written tomorrow are being thought of today, and will be fixed and rigid soon enough.  But for now, it’s for us to decide what happens.

If you stop, today, and say “hi” to a child, and smile, and say they’re pretty, you’ve given them something.  You may not be the perfect person you want to be, or have the career you want, or have attained fame and recognition, but in that moment you’ve altered the course of their future.  That feeling of pride given to them on that day you stopped and smiled may give them the ability to ignore the other things they hear and believe in their worth and beauty.  They’ll pass that on to those they meet, and your little act of kindness will multiply.  It will live on and continue to ripple through the future forever.

GrandparentsMy Grandpa C is no longer around to drive in trucks with and to listen to and to ask questions and to tell my stories.  But his goodness, his industry, and every one of his words, deeds, and thoughts are still alive.  I’ve forgotten their source and utter them as if they’re my own, just as my grandpa did as well, but they continue to shape how I live.

That is what Whitman calls your “indirect life.”

So go, my friends: create as many good ripples as you can, start as many indirect lives as you can, and live forever.

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Unworthy – a Story Series

The day after I posted the “Unworthy” article was one of the happiest of my life.  I spent all of Friday morning reading people’s comments and replying to them – everyone was saying they understood, or they had gone through the same thing, or “I didn’t know others went through this.” 

As I drove into the Walmart parking lot and a driver almost cut me off, I nodded to them and thought, “We all do it.”  While shopping, I whistled the entire time and genuinely enjoyed thinking about the lives of the people I passed–the little girl who let out a five-second scream as loudly as she could and the father who desperately tried to stop it–and when I drove home I got a hit of euphoria as I hit the gas peddle to get on the freeway.  I was enjoying every moment.

I had been worried about posting the article, worried about how others would respond, worried because of some of my past experiences with writing online, thinking that my inner thoughts would be ridiculed or criticized.  Instead, I was welcomed into the hidden world of the Unworthy and told I belonged, I was asked if others belonged there too, and I felt accepted with all the parts of me I had been afraid of expressing.

Expressing those inner thoughts was therapeutic for myself and for others.

That’s why it wouldn’t be enough for me to just post my own story and move on.  Others sent me their stories in response to mine, and they were potent.

Today, I bring two stories – one from Judy and one from Tony.  If you’d like to submit your own for consideration (whether you’re active LDS or not), please send me an email.

Unworthy – a Story Series:

“Glimpses of Buried Treasure”

The other day I was hiking in the Greenbelt here in Austin Texas, a system of trails that follows a seasonal stream, and I stumbled onto the scattered pages of what I thought was someone’s journal.  The pages were spread over about fifty feet of the dry creek bed, a recent rain having weighed them down so the wind hadn’t taken them very far, and I guess I did what anyone else would do when given the chance to read the secret thoughts of a stranger: I started reading.  It turned out to be a community notebook, placed in a cave a few weeks ago for whoever stumbled on it to write in.  Then I did what any responsible citizen would do and picked up the litter so I could throw it away.  Or I did it because I wanted to write about it . . . .

On my mind was something I had just read in A Tale of Two Cities.  I think it does a good enough job explaining why this notebook of random thoughts was so great to have found.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!  Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all.  No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged.  It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. . . .  In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Cave Secrets cover

Cave Secrets

(Click on any of the circular pictures to enter the album)

Greenbelt Journal - Lost mother

I am ever interested in the secret lives of other people and ever impressed at how impossible it is to know them.  As I passed people on the trail and had quick conversations about dogs and the weather, I wondered what they would write on their page and what unknown stories lay hidden further beneath.

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(PS, if by any small chance one of the authors of this journal finds this post, or anyone else who knows, let me know where the “cave” is and I’ll return the book with a new one that is more permanent!)

2012 in review

2012 has been a year of blogging – I’ve started five blogs this year (OK, so . . . maybe six or seven), but have only consistently contributed to two: The Accidental Atheist and The Weekend Philanthropist.

I’ve found a lot of joy in learning to express myself more clearly and look forward to another year of writing in 2013.

As a cap to the year, here are the 2012 articles from this blog I’m the most happy about, along with an annual report from WordPress down below.  Enjoy!

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1) A Mormon Boy’s Mission to Save His Father.  In this article I show six snapshots of my life, how I developed the need to save my father from being gay, and what it was like.  Beyond starting (or continuing, really) an important conversation within my extended family, a lot of other readers liked this article’s approach and honesty – it wasn’t an argument, I was just saying what happened.  A version of this was published in Wells Fargo’s Pride Team Member Network along with my face and the subtext, “I am Wells Fargo, and I am also an LGBT ally”, a blogger or two included it in articles they wrote, and I made a lot of new friends.  Because of this and another post about homosexuality, I’ll also be involved in a new Mormon podcast that focuses on gays within the Church – I’m very excited for it!

2) The Day I Left the Church and 2 months before my mission ended.  More than any other posts I wrote, readers enjoyed seeing journal entries from when I was struggling with doubt.  Journals were written for myself and to myself alone, distanced from any need to convince other people – I was bluntly honest in a few of my entries and included them without edit for readers to view.  People have related with and connected with my experience, and I’ve had great phone conversations and meetings as a result.  I also think it helped readers see my sincerity of purpose.

3) Rea’s Story (Mom).  Probably the part of the blog I’m the most happy about, however, is something I didn’t write at all – the Story Series.  Wanting to have the same impact I saw from John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories Podcast, I opened up my blog to family members and friends so they could tell their stories: what it was like for them when they left, or when they returned to the Church, or why they’ve stayed.  I wanted to keep it balanced, showing each of these three perspectives, and the result was great.  The most-read story, and one which readers have really connected with, was written by my mom.

4)  Mormonism and Polygamy – A Call to Honesty.  Of all the posts I’ve written, this one took the most research and thought.  I wanted to express something that was central to my leaving the Church – I felt lied to by my own authorities (well, I was lied to).  I bought three new books and researched for over a month before posting this article.  It started an interesting debate, as you’ll see from the 82 comments (not counting the few I had to delete).  The conclusion to this article, the paragraph with bold text in it, is something I’m still proud of – it expresses well my sincere and extreme frustration and contains a challenge to Mormons to be more honest.

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written on this blog, as I’ve been focusing on philanthropy – please check out the 2012 review for The Weekend Philanthropist as well and see what you think!  I look forward to writing more in 2013 and hope you’ll continue to be a part of it.  🙂

If you’re curious, you’re welcome to read the Annual Report from WordPress that shows some of the stats from The Accidental Atheist.

Six Months of Blogging . . . Plenty More To Come

image courtesy of Genista

“Hey.  Hey you.  Ya, I’m talking to you.  I just wanted to take a break from eating my acorn here to say thanks for coming by.”

Acorn, Dexter marathons . . . same difference, right?

Well . . . I started this blog six months ago exactly – to the T, on the dot, crossing my i’s . . . err . . . something like that.

Anyway, I want to thank you all for reading.

There are many types of readers here . . . and I’m glad for all of you.

Most of you are silent visitors, and I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen and come back often.  Some of you come here because of curiosity; you look around for a minute or two, maybe longer if you liked an article.

Others of you are here to get your weekly frown in, giving sighs of ridicule while reading and talking about it later with friends or family in a “what a twerp” kind of way.  I really hope you’ve had more “hmmm . . .” moments than frustrated sighs and I hope I can open the conversation with you a little more.

Some of you are here because you relate; reading others’ thoughts helps you define your own experience.  Others of you are here because you want to understand why I left and why I oppose religious belief today.

Whatever brings you here to read, thanks for coming by.  There are so many things to do each day, so many people and companies asking for your attention, seeking your belief, time, or money.  I hope I’ve used your time well and that every time you’ve clicked away from my blog you’ve taken a little more knowledge, a little more understanding, and maybe a little more empathy for the “other side” of this issue, whichever side you come from.

Six months . . .

In our six months together there have been 28 posts, 331 comments, and 10,776 views.  Nine of you have shared your own stories and that has become the best part of the blog, I think.  Friends I hadn’t heard from in years have sent me messages, some calling me to repentance, others giving their critiques (which are always welcome), but most saying “thanks” or that they understand.  Some who are struggling with doubt or family problems have messaged me and we’ve made new relationships (or deepened old ones) in the solidarity that comes from common experience.

In writing I find ways to express myself, to develop my thoughts slowly and make sure I mean what I’m saying (though often I’ll still revise later).  Writing gives me a way to remember past thoughts and experiences and leave them engraved somewhere where others can find them.  I’m happy with how this blog has gone and am looking forward to the next step.

The next step

Well, we’ve focused on Mormonism for long enough, I think.  As the title of this blog suggests, this is about my accidental and unwanted step into atheism, from devoted disciple to active skeptic.  I’m brimming with ideas and topics I want to discuss about atheism and have a lot of material ready – it’s time to move to the topic of atheism, at least momentarily.  There is so much to write about though . . . so much I want to think about and put on paper.

Here’s what’s coming up:

  • Transition – my religious experiences after leaving the LDS Church, the search for another religion, the problems I found, apathy, a long break, agnosticism, and finally, atheism.
  • A series of articles about what death means to me as an atheist and former believer and how that view affects the way I live my life.
  • A discussion about bitterness in ex-Mormons, a new Story Series by those who are bitter, and a look into why I probably won’t stop talking about religion for the rest of my life.

Would you like this blog to take a different direction?  Are there any topics you’d like to hear about or to discuss as a group?  I can’t guarantee I can cover them – this blog is a place to tell my story, after all, and some subjects weren’t important to me or I may not know much about them – but I’d love to hear your request and see if I can fulfill it.

What parts of the blog have been your favorite?  Your least favorite?  Post your comment below or send me a personal message.  Also, go check out my philanthropy blog!  I’m traveling to Nicaragua in November, I interview local philanthropists and write about their programs, and I discuss common problems in philanthropy.

Thanks again for coming by!  If you like what we’re doing here please tell your friends or anyone else you think could benefit.  Until next time!

-Jefferson

(props to Genista for the awesome squirrel pic, and props to the squirrel for being so ridiculously attention-grabbing)

ps – here’s a note from an old friend (an active and believing Mormon):

I came across your blog tonight and have really enjoyed reading it. Who knew that the kid who would lurk below in the pool and bite down hard on peoples’ limbs for no reason was capable of such emotion and eloquence.:-)

I think most active Mormons fail to fully understand the emotional struggle that those who leave the church experience. I appreciate that your blog highlights these complex emotional issues. I think most members have many of the same struggles that you have had, but the culture of the church is such that any doubting is seen as weakness. More openness would be a lot healthier for members psychologically. I think the sugarcoating of history does more alienating than ‘protecting’ or whatever justification is given for it.  It gives the appearance of a ‘whited sepulcher’ to those already struggling with the history or tenets of the faith.