"Are you spiritual?"
Um. Helloooo, Blogger? Is there a good reason why this post was up for several hours, and then disappeared, only to reappear as an older (AND INCOMPLETE!) draft version on my dashboard? Or is this post being yanked by an even Higher Authority? Cue Twilight Zone music. Damn. I hate telling jokes twice.At a Christmas party a few years ago, one of the local wives asked Karen, apropos of nothing, "Are you spiritual?" Here was my wife, a firm atheist, being questioned on faith by someone who could only be described as a true believer. I watched, dumbstruck. I expected blood. But I had underestimated Karen yet again. As an attentive student of Miss Manners, she handled the question with ease. "What an interesting question," she said. "And such a good question, too. Isn't it odd how infrequently folks talk about spirituality with people they hardly know? I wonder why that is?" And so forth. She kept at it until the topic had strayed a safe distance from the hot button of spirituality. The other woman never knew what hit her. I was relieved -- not so much because Karen had handled the question so deftly, but because no one had bothered to ask me.
No one ever talked religion in my family. We went to temple rarely, and in those days (the mid- to late-60s) rabbis sermonized on politics, not faith. The Holocaust was scarcely twenty years old; we all knew folks with tattoos on their arms. As far as I could tell, being a Jew meant (1) never forgetting the Holocaust, (2) supporting Israel, and (3) not believing in Jesus. By age five, the muse had me staging boxing matches in my head between God and Jesus, Jesus and the Devil, the Devil and Jesus versus God, and so forth. My knowledge of Jesus came from watching Bible-thumpers on Sunday TV and whatever I could find on weekdays. A few years later, I would be Garner Ted Armstrong's biggest fan. I suspect I had a better understanding of Revelations than I did of Genesis. That might explain how I came up with the Hannukah Lobster. After that bit of humiliation, I brow-beat my parents into signing me up for Hebrew School. There, Israeli women who pronounced my name Dog taught me to read Hebrew, and later, a tyrannical cantor taught me my cantillation marks so I could belt out Torah lines with the best of 'em. Religious instruction consisted of disjointed Bible stories taught as historical fact with nary a word of moral or ethical analysis. As for Talmud -- Talwhat? Our rabbi fancied himself a comedian, a Jackie Mason in tefillin. What a dick. His whole pre-ceremony interaction with me consisted of a twenty minute interview, during which he badgered me about how baseball was a sport for intellectuals. He got me to cough up some dirt on my family, which he used during my bar mitvah as 'humorous' snark. Yeah, that's right -- in front of my friends, family, and the whole congregation. That ended my schtick with Judaism, at least for a while.See, it's this last bit that Blogger keeps eating. Not the whole post, just this last bit. Grrr. A few days ago, I mentioned Borges' story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", wherein a little known, marginally successful author sets out to rewrite Don Quixote word for word. I'm beginning to feel like Menard, only it's not Cervantes I'm struggling to channel. It's me. Well, here goes. One more time. This time I'm saving the HTML in a separate text file.That's why questions like "Are you spiritual?", "Do you believe in God?", or even "Have you been saved?" distress me. The answer to all three is the same: It's complicated. You know something? For the folks who ask those kinds of questions, "It's complicated" is the last answer they want to hear. It's complicated because I'm not the perfect Vulcan my wife is. It's complicated because, while I hate blind faith, I'm too attached to my memes to let them go. It's complicated because, like any true Agnostic, I really don't know the answers. I'd like to think my confusion is the hallmark of an intelligent mind, but I know it is nothing more than what it is: confusion. And it doesn't help that every time I come within a hair's breadth of something approaching an epiphany of self-understanding, Blogger eats my column. Okay. Here goes. Save HTML file. Hit publish button. D.
***Over the years, my spiritual pendulum has swung from Judaism through Agnosticism to Zen Buddhism. I'm what you call a Jew-Boo (if you're trying to be nasty, that is) or a Juddhist (my preferred designation). Those of you familiar with Buddhism know that its precepts are compatible with other religions. Zen, especially, is more a philosophy than a network of faith-based beliefs. So it's not all that weird, despite what some of my tribe might think -- the ones who sling the Jew-Boo label, that is. Now that I'm an adult, I can take charge of my education. I have a halfway decent library on both Zen and Judaism, and I've read a fair fraction of it. I'm not an ignoramus. For that matter, I suspect I've read more of the New Testament than the average American Christian. Nevertheless, when it comes to practice, I'm as piss-poor a Buddhist as I am a Jew. The pendulum tends to take a sharp turn back towards Judaism whenever I'm faced with a pediatric airway emergency. Times like those, the last thing I want to believe is that I'm the one whose solely responsible for the life of this child. Those situations are frightening enough without that kind of load on my shoulders. Yup, that's when the big time bargaining comes in. Me: Hey, God? You remember me, the guy who recites his Shema every few years or so and hopes like crazy he's catching You in a good mood. Well, hey, look. It's like this. I have this kid here, she's eighteen months old, and I would really appreciate it if you would help me look after her. Him: (silence) Me: Okay. Be that way. How about this: if things work out okay, I'll start working on my son again. I mean, he's nine years old. How entrenched could his atheism be? I'll do my best, Lord, I really really will. And so forth. When you get down to it, I want to believe, particularly at times like those. Security, that's what it's all about. I don't believe in an afterlife and I'm not particularly afraid of my own death. I am concerned about the safety and health of my family and my patients, and so I want to think Someone is up there watching over us. At the same time, I realize no one makes it out of here alive.