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.

David’s Story (Step-Father and Daddio)

I typically do not broadcast my opinions over the social media. I am rather more comfortable in one on one discussions.  With that said, I am submitting this in response to my son’s (Jefferson’s) request for my feelings.

A bit of background, I am a lifelong member of the church.  I have gone through a period of in-activity in the church (a post-divorce period).  I am currently a strongly committed and very active member of the church.  For perspective on the request for this discussion, my wife and six of my nine children have left the church.  I guess that qualifies me to post my opinion here.

Let me start by saying that with each of the seven immediate family members who have left the church, I have had very different feelings and reactions.  Each person and each case is different.  The emotions and feelings for each were affected by their individual personalities, the life changes they were making, and so on.  The biggest common feeling was questioning.  I wanted to understand the whys.  My comments here will be pulled from all of these relationships, experiences and expectations.  This is a general response.  I could expand on each person individually.

I have listened to each family member individually and treated them separately.  I have listened to each issue and read about and pondered each issue questioned.  I am sure I do more searching and reading than everyone knows in my hope to learn and understand.  No knee jerk reactions.  In many cases I am still pondering and learning.  I have tried to understand where each person is coming from.

That said, on some issues it boils down to the typical ‘agree to disagree’, accepting that we all have our own opinions and feelings and I respect those.  In rare cases I strongly disagree and this primarily comes from my feeling that from my perspective, the path taken or the point of view taken will lead to some amount of misery or sadness.  I do not judge or love these family members any less.  I still want the best for them and of course I have my own opinion about what leads to happiness.  I believe all of these family members know who I am and what I believe.  They also know that I love them even though we see differently.

A big piece of my wading through these issues and opinions is trying to understand where, why and how the opinions are formed.  What has led each person to where they are.  Why do they feel the way they do.  This whole process is interesting, educational, inspiring and thought provoking.

I have broadened my view of people and the world through these insights.  I have deepened my ability to love and accept and support.  Don’t get me wrong, I still do not accept that some of the directions chosen are good or even right for the people I love.  But I do feel I understand.

This process has been fertile ground for me to go deeper into my own beliefs, feelings, perspectives and attitudes.

With relation to the church, my testimony, my commitment, my spiritual life and my relationship with God, it is now only stronger and deeper.

We are all more comfortable hanging with people who have similar values, principles and directions.  While members of my family have gone in different directions, the bonds I have with them hold true.  I dearly love to hang with each of them and share our lives.  I love and enjoy each of them.

I am happy to talk with anyone individually about any issues or feelings, no holds barred, no love lost.

A couple of thoughts to ponder that might lead to understanding some differences of thought.  These thoughts bubbled up from readings as I have tried to understand the path of my family members.  They point to threads that seem to be common, at least in our family.

Is your experience with religion “a HAVE TO religion or a religion TO HAVE”?

“We are not mortal beings trying to have a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a mortal experience.”

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Read more stories or add your own by clicking here.

Comment on David’s story by clicking here.

Buddy’s Story (Cousin, Brother, and Son to Leavers Like Me)

I remember several years ago when, for the first time, one of my handholds gave way completely. It was when my cousin Jefferson notified me, on a hot summer drive, only days after returning honorably from a full-time mission, that he didn’t believe in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints anymore.

I hope to offer in this little excerpt a bit of what it feels like for a faithful Latter-day-Saint to watch painfully as long-looked-up-to cousins, an aunt, then a beloved brother and mother decide to leave the Church and pursue other paths.

Ready go.

The first time it happened, the hot summer drive, was really the only sudden one. The others (my bro and mama) were more gradual realizations than one-time slaps in the face. I always felt, however, like I was always the last one to “officially” be told, and usually at my specific asking. What my experience with each of them shares in common, though, is the pain. The lost example, the failed expectations, the apparent dramatic reduction in common ground. The confusion. I’m not sure exactly what causes the pain, but it sure does suck.

At first, it was much more difficult to talk with them because anything too deep or religious was suddenly unfamiliar territory and, therefore, uncomfortable. Even daily interactions became harder because of what I thought to be the elephant in the room: “You drink. You have extramarital sex. You have tattoos and pierced ears.” The awkwardness and difficulty have lessened over the years, but not quickly nor completely.

I know the above “elephant” choices aren’t the most important aspects of life, not by a long shot, but they’re extremely difficult to ignore because they are such a central part of the culture I grew up in. Typical Mormon labeling. I do, however, strongly believe the reasoning behind the related standards to be a central part of creating a happy life. I want my family to be happy. I’m a young whippersnapper, yet I’ve already seen a lot of sadness, regret, and pain come directly from ignoring the Prophets. This is partly why is makes me so depressed to see my loved ones make those choices.

I don’t want to be biased, I don’t want relationships to be strained, and I don’t want to blow things out of proportion—but It’s hard to make sudden paradigm shifts. I wish there was a “Judgment Switch” I could just turn off to make things easier. There’s not. The stoic truth is that it’s hard to cope with drastic changes in the lives of those I love. They may not consider the changes drastic, but I do.

Drastic enough to create distance, anyway. I don’t know whose fault it is, if anyone’s, but I feel less close to those of my family who have left the Church than I otherwise would. There is a strong sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that comes from sharing mutual beliefs about life and God, and when that feeling is torn away, it leaves a very hollow space. I seem to feel that tearing afresh every time I see or read or hear of something a loved one does that is very contrary to what I believe, what he/she used to believe.

And it’s very real to me, because the consequences are real and lasting.

Another source of angst forms when I think of how these dissonant choices might affect my son, who is now only a baby. How will I foster his having close relationships with my most loved family members while keeping him appropriately sheltered until he’s older? Most times there won’t be any reason for difficulty in this regard, but when there is I have no idea how I’ll handle it. Hopefully it will be a great opportunity to learn.

A lot of learning has already taken place on the part of everyone involved. I’ve learned that the Church isn’t everything, but God is. I’ve learned that there is still more than enough to look up to in those cousins of mine. And I’ve learned that everyone remains the same person no matter what they choose. Unconditional love is the best kind, indeed the only kind, and it’s been great to see it in action. I know God still loves us all unconditionally.

What I hope for my family is what I hope for myself—that they focus on what is most important. Love, family, service, and other patterns of fulfilling happiness. I hope they come back to the Church, as it is a divinely appointed tool in helping us focus on those things.

Most importantly, I hope they never stop seeking Truth. They’ll find it, and so will I.

Eventually.
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Read more stories or add your own by clicking here.

Comment on Buddy’s story by clicking here.

Stayers and Returners – Story Series #2 and 3

“Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.”  – Mosiah 28:3

This is the fate of the true believer, left behind by family members who chose to leave the Church.  Others may admit to themselves that they aren’t the Judge and pray that God sees the sincerity of their loved one’s heart and has mercy – LDS members believe there is time for the preaching of the gospel after this life, so maybe their wayward family still has a chance.

Whatever the conclusion, many thoughts are spent dwelling on the desire for loved ones to return to the church – hoping and praying that the spirit will soften their hearts and teach them, and seeking for the opportunity to be an instrument in God’s hands to invite and help with that change.

That’s not easy–not for the leaver or the stayer–but it’s real, and it’s worth talking about openly.

With that, allow me to introduce our second round of Story Series – for those who are stayers to say what it’s like when family and friends leave.

We’ll start with Buddy, my cousin and one of my best friends.  A little snippet:

“…There is a strong sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that comes from sharing mutual beliefs about life and God, and when that feeling is torn away, it leaves a very hollow space….”

Then David, my Step-father and Daddio, who is still in a strong relationship with my now ex-Mormon mother.

“…I have broadened my view of people and the world through these insights.  I have deepened my ability to love and accept and support.  Don’t get me wrong, I still do not accept that some of the directions chosen are good or even right for the people I love.  But I do feel I understand….”

I’m also starting the third page of Story Series for those who have left the Church and decided to return.  I normally wouldn’t start two Series at a time, but my friend has a very moving story about his process of leaving and then returning that I think you’ll be glad to have seen.  He has chosen to stay anonymous because of the sensitive details.  Again, a little quote:

“…An argument ensued that somehow led to politics and she said something to the effect of “I don’t think you belong in the church with views like that.”  I decided I agreed and I quit my spotty attendance altogether….”

If you would like to tell your story, you’ll find the details and guidelines here.  Whether you left the Church, are still a member but have had family members leave, or left and eventually returned, I’d be interested in hearing your story.