The God Question | Part Three

[Moral] practice has not been able to keep pace with the mind. Man has begun to say, “This is wrong, that is wrong.” Whereas previously he justified his conduct, he now no longer justifies his own or his neighbor’s.  He wants to set right the wrong but does not know that his own practice fails him. The contradiction between his thought and conduct fetters him.
-Mohandas Gandhi
Non-Violence in Peace & War, II-76

I don’t really understand myself,
for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.
Instead, I do what I hate.
-Romans 7:15

The Problem of Me
In the summer of 1981, at the same time I was reading my friend’s pharmacology textbooks on LSD, I was also reading Gandhi. This was in part my Looking to the East phase. But it was also my looking within. I had begun to suspect myself as possibly my biggest problem.

That probably reaches back over my entire life up to that point. But over the last nine months I had come up against some unsettling indications that I was perhaps not the person I thought or hoped myself to be. The one I remember best had been the previous fall, when my friends asked me to help them with a proposed pot-growing operation. My gut told me was it was stupid and wrong, but the money that could be made turned my head. I was quite disgusted with myself over that. Why would I not only think but also act in a way so at odds with my self-professed values?

If I could be hard on myself in a very selective way, I was even harder on others, and also extremely defensive. I couldn’t take any sort of criticism; to me, it was always personal and never welcome. As a harsh judge of others, it seems I always assumed the same sort of harshness must have been behind the least bit of criticism directed at me. Underlying my assessment of myself and of others, was a complete lack of insight. I really did not get people. It followed that I didn’t get myself.

When I looked in the mirror, seemingly every part my persona had an opposing aspect. I was a clown who made others laugh but actually took himself far too seriously. I was violent yet peaceful, sensitive yet capable of being really mean, even to friends; serene and patient, yet plagued by anxiety and frustration; compassionate yet judgmental; wildly gregarious but often a loner, vain yet at times overcome with contempt for myself.

It wasn’t a pretty picture, fractured into these paradoxes, and obscured by shadows of unknowing. I wondered what do with myself. That summer I picked up a compendium of Gandhi’s writings. I thought initially that he could inform a decision I had already made to personally adopt a nonviolent lifestyle. Up until the age of 14, violence was part of my life. I chose that it would not be anymore. But in Gandhi there was more, a philosophy of living and working in the world that resonated with me. Non-violence does not sufficiently convey in English what he meant by Ahimsa. It was something greater and deeper than merely refraining from physical violence. It was peaceful and just action, not mere pacifism. It required much of the individual, from within the heart.

This is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts; whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.
-Non-Violence in Peace & War, I-114

It also answered the militant Left and any others who saw violence and destruction as the only means to their utopia -  something I had only awakened to in the last few months in Seattle. And Gandhi insisted that freedom was for all, regardless of their beliefs or station in life.  Ahimsa met me where my desire for personal betterment intersected with my desire for social and political change – inner peace and world peace, so to speak.

However much I was taken with these values, reading about them and pondering them was as far as I got before I was distracted by life and the tumult of the next twelve months, and events that would send me in a very different direction.

* * *

House on Ronald AvenueI stayed with my parents for the summer, who had rented a daylight basement just across Bonner Park from the house on Hastings. Right away I started looking for a job. I had hoped to get on as a YCC crew leader, but was notified in March that I hadn’t been selected. I ran around to all the movie theatres in town, but couldn’t find a job. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get a paying job, I had to line up enough volunteer work to stay busy. That was the deal. I readily agreed, and right away went out to do it.

Missoula Art Museum

Missoula Art Museum

First I lined up a few shifts on the welcome desk of the Missoula Art Museum. We were showing a fantastic exhibit of the photography of Philippe Halsman. Between the exhibit and the hours I sat reading art magazines, my knowledge and appreciation grew, especially for painting and black and white photography.

Then I started serving at the Poverello Center, a NPO that served the hungry and homeless of Missoula. I would come and help with the food line they had every day at lunch. This proved a revelation to me. First, the admonition Gandhi made that we ought to live in service to others, that helping the poor was a special obligation, was now something I was suddenly able to practice every week. It also happened to have been what my parents and Church had taught me since I was little.

Second, it had a lasting effect on me. It was Christianity in practice. It was a direct and effectual expression of the way that Jesus said his followers should be in the world. I was struck by how I felt, giving my time and labor on behalf of others. It was awesome. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. In fact, while I was there, I didn’t think about myself. A year later this sense would revisit me and change my life forever.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

I argued a lot with Mark. Daring to relate my dalliance with Gandhism, I was met with exhausting objections: it isn’t practical, it doesn’t work, they are hopeless ideals. I wasn’t able to defend something I had just begun to read about. I felt deflated. Back in Seattle (before or after the summer, I don’t recall) Mark also contended vociferously against altruism, that nothing humans did was truly selfless. I believed that we could act for the benefit others and against our own.

Well, of course I did. I hoped I was doing good, and not solely to satisfy myself. Just a little bit of good work did a heck of a lot to counterbalance how badly I felt about myself most of the time. It suggested that I had at least some good impulse, that I wanted to serve some higher purpose. Sometime in the past year, I had what I considered a revelation. I don’t know how it came to me, but it was the realization that bad people – selfish, mean, violent, treacherous – must be unhappy people. Which was the cause of the other, I couldn’t say, but happiness and badness couldn’t reside together.

I had read enough to know that according to Buddhism, human suffering comes from selfish desires. When I turned for a few hours a week from my selfish desires to the needs of others, to help feed the hungry, I felt perhaps that was true. At the Pov I also met some Children of God who lived a vagabond lifestyle as ‘missionaries,’ denying themselves many physical comforts ‘for the sake of the Good News.’

This was not the end of the variety of spiritual paths I was presented with. In Seattle the Church of Scientology spotted me as a promising target, and I couldn’t seem to get away from them: three or four of my co-workers were Scientologists. In fact, I seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that signaled to all the major cults: “Easy Mark. Proceed with Confidence.”

Yes, the religious smorgasbord was spread before me. Yet for all my searching over the last couple of years; all of the different religious people, ideas, groups and cults I had encountered; the books I read, the hallucinations I had, the hours of pondering and debating, I was still in the dark. Neither the Catholics, the Protestants, Gandhi, Camus, Aquinas, the Scientologists, the Mormons, nor the Children of God had shown me the way out of my questing and confusion. And, right or wrong, I hadn’t latched onto anything that seemed to answer the problem of me. I was no better off, as far as I could tell.

One day I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, wearing my Easy Mark t-shirt. A girl approached me with a clipboard and a pen. I knew right away that she was a Scientologist, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. This had happened a couple of times before. They ask you questions, and don’t even pretend to mark down your answers. The questions are meant to make you emotionally vulnerable to their recruitment pitch: “We can help you with that.” One thing leads to another and a few months later you are penniless and insane, awaiting the big alien invasion. In Portland once, I went as far as being walked to the downtown Church to get a personality test. But I got the heebie-jeebies and left.

“Hi! I’m taking a survey,” she said, flashing a friendly smile and standing about six inches closer than a complete stranger would. “Could I ask you a few questions?”

I am constitutionally incapable of telling someone to get lost. And saying no was just plain rude.

“Okay.” How was I thinking this was going to turn out? I don’t know, dear readers, I don’t know.

“If there was one thing about yourself you would like to change, what would it be?”

Only one? I thought. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I lied. Now I just wanted her to go away.

“Isn’t there something about yourself you’d like to change?” The smile was fading.

I squirmed. Without even knowing me, she had my number. How’d she get it? I had a fresh incision from my chin to my belly button, and she was tugging at the stitches.

“Probably.” But I’m not telling you.

Her tone became impatient. “Like what?”

“Um…”

“Come on, all of us have something!”

I shook my head. Angered at my failure to comply, she walked away in a huff.

There were a lot of things I would change if I could, including knowing how to talk to someone like that without becoming flummoxed, and letting myself feel guilty for making her mad. Weak, slow on my feet, not knowing what a boundary was between myself and another person, not even a stranger. “No, thank you, I’m not interested, have a nice day,” would have sufficed. But no, one question from her and I need some medication.

Worse was the real answer to her question. I couldn’t have begun to put it into words, but the feeling plagued me of not being good, or good enough, or knowing what to do about it. I never killed anyone, or raped or tortured anyone, but what if what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with other people, the people I judge, the people who anger me, shock me and repulse me with their outrages against my sense of moral order? If I can’t change, then how can they? I have no interest in becoming some kind of saint, but something is wrong with me. Maybe it means I’m in the same fix as the people who make the world so wrong. The people who made the world wrong a thousand years ago as well. In other words, the people who made me question the faith of my mothers and fathers. Where do I look next?

Who knows?

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

Part Four (coming soon)