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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Lapsed Agnostics

"If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.  We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace....

We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves."

Page 83-83
The Big Book

As I examine the events in my life over the past few years, I find that it is hard to give a proper accounting.   So much has happened in such a short period of time and my memory these days is like the box of threads I keep in my sewing kit.  Over time, and through neglect, the contents have become tangled and jumbled, and picking them apart is no small task.  Some threads are brighter than others, however, and today I'm going to pull them out and try to explain what they mean to me.

Recovery is where it all started.  I am a member of a 12-step program which has a strong tradition of anonymity.  This means that I am not to "out" myself as a member or discuss anything that happens in the meetings.  Nonetheless, from what I have said, I am sure that many of you are familiar with the program and know more or less how it works.

How did I end up in such a group?  Well, I had struggled to control my drinking for many years.  Whatever my best intentions, it always seemed that I would start drinking at a pot (cocktail) or in a lovely Parisian bar with friends, and couldn't stop.  "Just one (or two)" didn't seem apply to me and I always drank more  than I intended to with predictable results.  This went on for years as I exercised "control" by setting limits and not drinking at all for long periods.   This allowed me to function and I was able to progress in my career and raise a family.  But it was a struggle and a lot of my energy was wasted in those little games we alcoholics play with ourselves to justify our drinking.  Then something changed (and I have no idea what made me tip).  Not matter how often I resolved not to drink that day, that weekend, that week, I would inevitably find myself with a glass of wine in my hands well before the sun was over the yardarm.  I could not not drink to get through my day, and when I realized that, I was terrified.

To make a long story short, I tried to stop and couldn't.  I could not imagine a life without wine, the magic potion that made me (I thought) witty, smart and fun to be around.  It gave me confidence and fueled my creativity.  How could I think and write, I thought, if I can't drink anymore?  Such is the grandiosity and confusion of the alcoholic.  In my fuddled mind, I seem to have confused myself with Hemingway or Hitchens.

It was only when I finally came to a point of such deep despair and desperation, and realized that I might actually die if I didn't stop drinking, that I finally contacted that organization in Paris and started going to meetings. The support, the tools, and the experiences of other alcoholics made it possible for me to stop for good.  I'll be picking up yet another chip (a small coin that indicates how long a person has been sober) at a meeting in late June.

In the Big Book of this organization, there are what we call The Promises:  serenity, peace, freedom and happiness.  So, it seemed like a great cosmic joke when, after having struggled to overcome one life destroying illness, I was diagnosed with fairly advanced breast cancer.  Two large tumors and one small one.  Worse, it had spread to my lymph nodes (never a good sign).  I had a few moments at the beginning when I shook my fist at the universe and said, "This is my reward?  Took me awhile to realize that they did come true.  Would I have gone to see my doctor immediately about that pesky lump I felt If I had still been drinking?  And what if I had still been in a state of active alcoholism when  I was diagnosed?   Would I have survived the treatment - the surgery, the chemotherapy, and radiation?

The move from anger to acceptance was, thanks to my program, relatively quick.  Life is in session.  Stuff happens.  Surrender.  How to explain to you that I felt more at peace, more serene and happier this past year then in all the years when I was out at sea, so far from God, trying to quench that unquenchable thirst with salty water?

When I started my recovery I was in the middle of one of my periodic flirtations with agnosticism/atheism.  I avidly read "The Four Horseman of the New Atheism": Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.  And after spending many hours reading and watching videos, I started to be very, very bored.  They seemed to be repeating themselves ad nauseum:  there is no God, organized religion is bad, religious people are delusional.  Not the sort of people I would like to have over to dinner - not because they are uninteresting, but because once you've heard the spiel and the 'Hallelujah's'  of the like minded, than what more is there to talk about?  The only thing that intrigued me at the end was that the Horseman felt so compelled to beat their steed long after it had expired.  I so wanted to say:  Let it go, the beast is dead, my dears.  Bury it and move on.

In recovery I came to another conclusion after I'd been sober long enough for me to start having brief moments of sanity.  Their spiel was unsatisfactory to me because in my heart was a guilty secret:  part of me did believe and craved a sign that there was something more.  I just hadn't been courageous or honest enough to admit it.  But I did not see the depths of my cowardice and intellectual laziness until I read Lapsed Agnostic by the Irish journalist, John Waters, and found the words that cut me deep because they were so true:
"When I was young I used to ask the most fundamental questions all the time.  What am I.  Who made me (sometimes, though not always, in the sense of Who is this God Who made me)?  What am I doing here?" 
"When I became what I in retrospect describe as an 'agnostic', these questions vanished from my consciousness.  Occasionally I would trot them out in order to argue with someone who asserted a belief in God, but for myself they were no longer live questions.  This suggests to me that my 'agnosticism' was never an actual position, but an evasion.  Reacting to the dark spectre of Catholicism, I withdrew, not into a new and convinced philosophical position, but into a kind of self-constructed box  which shut out questions that seemed, to my consciousness then, irrelevant."
People react in interesting ways when their friends or family are faced with life's challenges and turn to religion.  "Of course," they say, "It's because of the drinking or the cancer or the death of a loved one."  Fascinating that such an act seems to require excuses for our madness.  Putting aside the mildly condescending attitude that this implies, may I ask instead that we all consider another view?

I humbly suggest to you that the recovering alcoholic and the person stricken with cancer who seek a deeper union with God are not delusional people.  On the contrary it is the active alcoholic who is, by definition, insane and much of what he or she says as the disease progresses (in my experience) can never be taken as their last word.  Ask them these things again when they get sober.  Sanity usually starts to shine through at about month three of sobriety and all the effects of alcohol abuse (mental, physical and spiritual) can linger for years.

As for the cancer patient, nothing kicks one into lucidity faster than that diagnosis.  It can provoke a radical re-examination of one's life to date and, not surprisingly, deep reflection on the question, "How shall I live now that I know my time here is limited?"

For me the secular world does not have satisfactory answers or a coherent approach to offer in the face of tragedy that comes out of the blue and is no one's fault.  There is no comfort to be had, no meaning to be found, no guided discovery possible in the New Atheism or in Agnosticism 'lite".  If there is delusion to be found here, I think it comes when we avoid deep fundamental questions with all our might.  In the modern secular world we like to pretend that we are immortal.  Some even insinuate that those who turn out to be very mortal indeed have somehow 'sinned' and that is the cause of their suffering.  Perhaps this shows that many of us are closer than we know to a secular belief system based on the faith that if we simply avoid overeating/drinking/smoking/unsafe sex/pesticides/pollution that we will live forever.

This did not escape the notice of the Dalai Lama:  “What surprised me most with westerners is that they lose health to make money and then spend that money in order to get it back. They think so hard about the future that they forget to live the present; that way they don't live the present, and not the future either. They live as if they should never die, and then die as if they had never lived.”

It is the awareness of death and the return to sanity that sends many of us (not all) back to those questions we asked as children.  That is what led me back to the Church.  Believe me, it is not my purpose here to convert anyone - if God wants you, then I am sure He'll let you know - but I do feel compelled to share that experience because it is the underlying current under all that I say, do and write now.  In My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman expresses it far better than I ever could with words that sing to my heart as I read late into the night:
"In truth, though, what I crave at this point in my life is to speak more clearly what it is that I believe.  It is not that I am tired of poetic truth, or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reason.  The opposite is the case.  Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith:  intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous." 
"How do you answer the burn of being?  What might it mean for your life - and for your death - to acknowledge that insistent, persistent ghost?" 
"And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it."


Tonia Marshall said...

Beautifully written.

People talk about the Lord moving in mysterious ways but when you're drowning in troubles I think He starts to make Himself much more obvious.

Tim said...

Hopefully I don't get my welcome mat taken away for saying this but you might not have realized you just met one of the more prominent atheists/agnostics in Europe last week.

Winner of the Irwin Prize created by none other than Richard Dawkins himself.

And more here:

I myself am an agnostic although I am hardly militant like some.(There seems to a divide between those who are and aren't as seen in some of the comments on YouTube). I will add though I like anyone who gets in a fight with former Pope Benedict(Sorry if that is offensive).

To come full circle I have a homelander American friend(who doesn't know about my activities at the Flophouse)who is big big pro Obama and pro FATCA. However even more than that he is a really big big atheist and gets quite upset that more US politicians(for all intensive purposes Democrats) are not self declared atheists agnostics. You can see how knowing what I know and involved with what I am involved with I might find that rather amusing.

Tim said...

Breaking up my comments, I didn't realize this myself but there is a lot of social pressure to drink alcohol. I was never ever a heavy drinker or even a moderate drinker. There was perhaps a period of time in my life where I might have a drink once a week. However, I was thinking yesterday that I haven't had any alcohol in almost three years or maybe more. Some of that is do to the fact I am social with a different group of people and in a different environment than I was three or four years ago. That is not to say those people are/were "bad" but it was different and there a certain degree of pressure to drink however, minimal. In a different environment there isn't such pressure.

One problem I do have though is I AM most certainly addicted to caffeine and have do something about that. It is all through soft drinks though not coffee. Which in some ways is better and some ways worse. Soft drinks are really bad for health and in some cases raise your risk of Cancer considerably.

Blaze said...

"Blessed Be The Tie That Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love."

I certainly can't claim to be a Christan, but a friend once told me I'm a Christian under construction. I replied I was still working on the foundation, but she was in the steeple. I told that story as part of the tribute I gave at her funeral last year. At her choosing, the hymn that followed was Blessed Be The Tie That Binds. I cherish those words and music now.

Thank you for so openly and honestly sharing your live with so many who have never met you in person. You are inspiration and courage extraordinaire.

I feel blessed to have had our lives connect across an ocean and across generations.

betty said...

Decide what you want
do not expect others to help you. Find your own way.

mame said...

V, this is a profound commentary. I am just awed by having missed perhaps three weeks or so of entries, yet stopped to peruse the favorites list this morning, and discovered this piece. I am printing this out and it will be at the office for inspiration and for encouragement as I go about my days. The new freedom cited in the paragraph up top is such a delicate concept, and it is based on a paradigm shift which is not easily described. You have done it justice with this piece.
Thanks for truly making my day! Mame

Anonymous said...

Dear V, It just astounds me how fiercely the force of synchronicity presents itself. I mean, I don't "believe in" it at all, but still have encounters with nonlogical, relevant occurrances that capture my attention and leave a deep sense of humility in their wake. Your post today was one I saw after maybe three weeks of passing by and not zooming in. I read the first section, a favorite that uses the term, new freedom. I read on, and reflected on how similar in dynamics the ists and the isms are. What you are describing is a paradigm shift, out of the belief system and into experience. Today I was reminded to again, to allow trust to guide me, and regained brief glimpses of that new freedom cited above. Thank you for an articulation of something, like surrender, that often defies words. Your unique point of view is so refreshing. All best, Mame

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tonia, Thank you so much for stopping by the Flophouse. Yes. And I don't think I will ever get over the wonder and gratitude I felt when I finally just asked Him for help and He gave it.

@Tim, More wonderful links. Thank you. And never worry - your welcome mat has been bolted to the Flophouse door. My dearest friend here is a staunch atheist. We talk about it and the conversation is always respectful. I think our friendship is all the deeper because we don't agree on everything. But when we disagree, we listen carefully to what the other has to say.

I'm not surprised. 3 of the 4 Horseman of the New Atheism are Europeans. For an interesting analysis of this read Peter Berger. I think you would love his "In Praise of Doubt and "A Rumor of Angels."

@Blaze, I am so grateful to have you in my life and I hope with all my heart that I can meet you one of these days.

@Betty, Yes, you need to find what's true. The trick is opening up enough to let possibilities in. Stopping drinking made me "teachable." :-)

@Mame, Thank you so much for your kind words. Took me a long time to find the right words to describe what I was feeling and how much these past couple fo years has changed me (for the better).

Yes, "surrender" is a tough concept. One of the hardest in recovery and just as hard when you get that diagnosis. Sometimes people react badly when they hear that word. "No, Victoria. It's all about fighting!" I tried that for most of my adult life and, frankly, it never worked out very well. :-) When I stopped being at war with myself, God and the rest of the human race I got back wonder, curiosity, love, help and peace.

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to reading this post that you shared with me some days ago.
This is a very brave post, and you seem very brave too from the story for many reasons.
I just can say I'm glad you survived all those things, and found God in the process.