My image of God isn’t really an image at all. I think we’re all to an extent overly influenced by religious, Biblical, and societal depictions of the divine as a white-haired bearded father sitting on a cloud and looking vaguely ornery. No doubt Michelangelo bears some of the blame for this, but the Sistine Chapel probably was just utilizing what was popular at the time. As metaphors go, an impossibly old father who is really grumpy about you staying out too late again is probably a good depiction of the Judeo-Christian assumptions, replete with the requisite wrath to take vengeance on anyone who would mess with “His” people. It’s no wonder so many people have a falling out with their birth religion and throw the whole notion of higher powers and divinity out altogether. Who wants another voice in your head telling you to get home by curfew?
It’s hard for me to really envision God as anything physical. Being bound by the corporeal just doesn’t seem very godlike, frankly, though I guess the early scholars got really caught up in that “in His own image” business. It’s hard for us to relate to something aphysical, certainly, so I guess believing that a divine being gets emotional and stomps (H)is feet just like we do would make us feel more comfortable beseeching this entity. But there’s nothing I can picture about a viable or worthwhile God that would exist physically… it’s far too limiting and strange. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t, deep down, believe anything exists physically. I believe we are living in a grand metaphor. That these physical lives are for those of us (hey, that’s everybody here!) too unsophisticated to understand aphysical realities, so we need it all spelled out for us in bodies and colors and sounds.
This is not to say that I see God as unemotional. Indeed, there is one emotion that I think God resonates with, resounds within, and for many practical purposes is. The problem of evil has never bothered me because the only order to the universe that makes sense to me is one wherein sentient beings are given absolute free will (within, I suppose, certain rule-based limitations). We are suffering because we make each other suffer and the goal is to figure out how we can all get along and sort things such that suffering is minimized (though I don’t think that’s actually the ultimate goal – happiness/suffering is not the dichotomy that I think matters most, which sets me apart from I guess 95% of current philosophical people and 99% of current unphilosophical ones). The challenge of life is to make moral progress without a cheat-sheet or knowing the rules. There are a lot of clues and I would argue God is omnipresent in dropping hints of varying levels of subtlety, but at the end of the day, we have to figure it out. And this collective nature of figuring it out is, as I often say, why we’re not all born on our own planet. We need each other and a lot of what we’re supposed to learn about on Earth involves cooperation and compassion. A child born into poverty may not have the free will to get herself out of it, but we collectively have the free will to ensure no children are born into poverty, or that those who are still have choices in their life.
And this is what we squander constantly. Which is why I sense the emotion that God is perpetually consumed by is sadness. Benevolent Sorrow has long been my catchphrase for the divine, and it’s really hard for me to imagine anything else. Because God clearly cares, but is limited from intervening by the choice to offer free will. (Thumbnail argument: lack of free will spoils moral choice, making life meaningless – I can walk through this in another post, but it’s pretty straightforward.) And it’s clear that we all have the capability to spend our time the right way and make the right choices to make a much better and more moral existence for all of us. But we don’t do that, over and over and over again. Our world is still largely governed by fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and greed, all of which result in violence, ignorance (in many senses), and neglect. It always surprises me when people talk about depression as disordered thinking – I find it very odd to look at human history or the state of the planet, take it seriously, and not be depressed. And there are those of you out there who believe this is the problem with depression and think I have a disease that needs treatment, but let’s be serious. Can you really get out of your own first world bubble, consider what’s going on planetarily, and not get sad? If you can, I think you have the disorder.
So this omnibenevolent sadness is out there, coursing through the universe, constantly urging us to bend back toward a level of compassion and seeing beyond ourselves that humans are so reluctant to embrace in the known course of history so far. How could you care that much and be so limited in your ability to help and not be sad? Especially when the lessons to learn and the choices to make are so simple. Don’t beat each other about the head and torso with sticks. Care about each other, even if the other people are far away or different from you. Keep trying and changing to get better.
I am not trying to stand on some great moral high ground here. While I have made a lot of progress with the violence question since discerning its paramount importance in what we’re trying to learn here, I am constantly berating myself for shortcomings in how I use my time, money, and influence for the betterment of the species. I go to sports games and play poker and play video games and eat out when I should probably be spending all of that time and energy and money on refugees and war-torn regions. This gets used as a throwaway APDA argument all the time to justify that it’s okay to make these selfish-seeming choices, but I always relate more to the core of the actual argument – it’s probably not okay to care more about your own society and mindless happiness than these other people. But I do it anyway. And as close as I ever get to changing is to periodically feel infinitely guilty and ashamed and occasionally make half-hearted resolutions to sell all my possessions and move to an aid camp in Syria (the country has been different in the past and will be different in the future as geopolitical winds ruin one land after another).
It is this kind of sadness, this deep, soul-well kind of pit, that I fell into in the crisp fall of 1997 in Glorieta, New Mexico. Albuquerque Academy, the elite private school aspiring to New Hampshire that I attended for 8th-12th grade, holds several ritual events as rites of passage for its students, but the two most memorable are probably Philmont (a 100-hour camping trip for 9th graders at the Boy Scout ranch there) and Senior Retreat (a three?-day series of workshops, skits, and free time traditionally held at the Baptist Conference Center in Glorieta). This is right near the opening of school, I think in September, and both events are held as bonding exercises for the cohorts of 150 students in their passage of time together in the pressure-cooker that is this prep school education.
My own Senior Retreat took place as I was first confronting the demise of the first serious relationship of my life, the one with the person usually called “PLB” on this website, the one where I fell in love and was engaged to someone who was exhibiting the traits of a pathological liar for the whole year, the one where the relationship ended via a melodramatic e-mail from her father telling me to stay away when the last words I’d heard from the girl herself were “I will love you forever and we’re still getting married.” The web of lies and deceit and nonsense are not necessary to revisit in painstaking detail at this juncture, but this was the first real time I’d had to spend in close confines where she might be since she’d transferred out of all the classes we’d signed up for together on day two of school. A high school is large enough to avoid someone mostly, but a quiet mountain retreat for just your class is decidedly less so. And seeing her there, the same person I’d shared so much with, cold, unfeeling, anonymous, ignoring, and illegal to approach – it was too much.
My friends were also in this incredibly awkward position at the time. I’d been pretty bad to them much of our junior year, as people in the throes of their first serious relationship often are to friends who have been close for years. Early relationships bring this all-consuming sense of importance that shifts uses of time, usually dramatically, and I’d blown off countless invitations to hang out in favor of spending basically all of my time with my girlfriend. When she unceremoniously (and deceptively, and embarrassingly) cut me loose, I went crawling back to my friends for support, apologetically and apoplectically. They took me back with a forgiveness that was wholly undeserved, but for which I am forever grateful. But they just didn’t know how to wrestle with the depth of my despair.
This all came to a head at the Senior Retreat, where aside from one joint victory wherein we designed the winning (and ultimately unprinted, for it was deemed inappropriate) design for our senior T-shirt, I was despondent pretty much the whole time. I think I was holding up okay the first day, but by nightfall, was starting to spiral hard and fast. I remember there being skits performed by the popular crowd, skits that lampooned relationships at one juncture, and I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle how carefree and young and boisterous everyone was when my world had ended. I tore out of the performance and went to stand by the lake, contemplating the depth of my misery.
Like most of my sadnesses, it didn’t just stay about me for long. If we are to picture outbursts and breakdowns of total sadness as a mineshaft opening up into brief free-fall, mine are often little chutes that then connect with the very deep wells of the larger sadness of the universe quite quickly. Feeling sorry for oneself only get so far when one quickly realizes how much other people are suffering in less recoverable ways, and especially how little one’s own self is doing to prevent and fix that reality. And then it’s just free-fall, every little injustice and wrong and rejection and failure in one’s own life and all Existence competing for top billing. When I get this sad, I cry inconsolably, and when I do that, I often end up hyperventilating, and it usually takes losing most of the feeling in my face to get me to a state where I can stop descending, can stabilize, can be numb enough to consider sleep.
For some reason, that first night in Glorieta, I couldn’t hit that stage. I kept cycling back from hyperventilation to sobbing, on loop. And when I was too drained and exhausted to manifest more tears, it was just despondent walking through the dark dark trees and rims of the lake, periodically bumping revelers who just sort of glared, sometimes trailed by my friends who were so so worried.
I have vague clear glimpses of moments of that night, including a tragicomic scene wherein three of my friends practically physically pushed my friend (and first girlfriend, who I’d callously dumped to date PLB) Alisha to talk to me and she tersely told me she had no idea why they thought she could help. I’m sure my group of friends, all male, thought a female influence would be able to get through in some way, or maybe it was her long-standing interest in psychology, but her mood at the moment was not amused and she confronted me with a bootstrappy kind of tough love that I would have to dig myself out of this if I wanted to. I was fine with that. I had no interest in digging, much less ascending. I was going all the way down that night.
I learned later that shortly before this happened, my friends had actually rallied a small search party for me since I had been missing since the skits and been seen crying by somebody and couldn’t be found and curfew was coming. I don’t remember being missing, but their worry was certainly justified, because a lot of my interest in the lake that night was one of longing, of manifesting my emotional reality physically, of sinking and going numb and never having to feel again.
I tapped into this feeling a little bit last night, some small combination of sad songs and late nights and feelings of moral inadequacy. There was no clear and present catalyst, really, unless one counts the sense of waste and loss and silliness that accompanies losing a poker tournament. I am not alone right now, though the feelings of rejection and the insanity of lost love are never far from my heart. But the world is still hurting and God is still sad and I can relate. And sometimes that’s all it takes.
I have never really talked much to anyone about Senior Retreat. I had a morning after the night that felt much the same – I think I woke up at four or five in the morning in the pre-dawn to go stand at that lake again and listen to sad music and try to will myself to break my promise to myself from seven years earlier and not survive. But I never got more than a toe in the water and here I am today. Maybe because I think that it would just be one more waste, one more thing for God and others to be sad about.
Harnessing the power of that sadness, of that feeling of infinite failure and disappointment, without it crushing you completely, it’s a dangerous game. It’s one I’m not even close to mastering, any more than I can capture the first rush of blood to the brain that precedes a migraine and live in the improved thinking before the pain sets in and nullifies all that progress. It’s feelings like that which compelled the holy folks of past generations to renounce the world and devote themselves to service or contemplation. I keep telling myself I can do more good as a member of the conventional world and use my gifts to influence others here instead. But I never know for sure. It’s so easy for it to sound and feel like an excuse, especially when there are sports games and poker tournaments and other hedonistic pursuits.
I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.