I realize that I write about God here a lot. I sometimes wonder if I will ever just accept the fact that I’m losing my religion (apologies to R.E.M.), or if I’m just too stubborn to lose it with anything resembling grace and acceptance. I often think that the only bits of grace and acceptance that have come to me regarding Teddy’s death have come through exhaustion rather than enlightenment. Maybe I’ll wake up one day and find that I’m worn down enough, tired enough, that I can’t struggle to hang on to my old beliefs, or that I’m no longer capable of trying to shape my religious beliefs to fit with my anger at the fact that babies die, that people all over the world suffer in ways that can and can’t be prevented.
And here’s where I start (again) writing in a way that would be seen by many people, some of them very dear and close to me, as heretical. I can’t apologize in advance, but I can warn you, so if you find heresy upsetting, there are some very fine blogs out there that you should maybe go read instead of mine at this point.
If I were a medieval mystic, perhaps I’d rejoice in my misfortune and believe that my soul was being tempered and tested and moving closer to God. I’d probably compare my sufferings to those of the Virgin Mary and to those of Christ, and feel humbly ennobled. I can see the attraction in that, in the submission, in relishing and reveling in submission to either God’s will or to the simple acceptance that I can’t control the universe. But I’m a wayward child of religion, and I’ve never managed to believe that people need deep grief for character-building. I persist in thinking that if God tortures people for their own good, then he’s a sadistic bastard who isn’t worthy of belief, and that if God even lets people suffer and die before their time, the same applies. Free will just can’t account for all of the pain.
I toss and turn over these questions in much the same way I did when taking Philosophy 101 in college, only now the stakes, which were always personal, are very clearly personal, and heaven (or whatever) help me, I can’t let go of the questions or the struggle.
I’m too stubborn. Not persistent, stubborn. It occurs to me that the one great and un-stubborn act in my life was letting Teddy be taken off ventilation instead of opting for surgery that would have prolonged his life but probably not saved it, and I was only able to do that because my love for him outweighed all of my stubbornness and because N was there to hold my hand. Maybe I have freedom to just be stubborn about everything else after that.
Life goes on, when it can, and I go on, and it’s been a couple of years now, but I still wrestle with and hammer away at this notion of God that I once thought I had figured out more than, it turns out, I ever did. And I read a lot. I work in an academic library, and love much about the work and my environment, but part of me dreams of working with children and young adult readers and literature, and I read a lot of YA lit., which means that I’ve read a few books by John Green, because he’s deservedly popular with YA readers. I say he is popular instead of just saying that his books are because he puts a lot of time and care and energy in connecting with readers – I recommend peeking at the vlogbrothers on YouTube whenever you can – and he shares more of himself than many writers do. Which I think is brave. This also makes it easy to learn facts like the following: he has a son who is maybe a month older than Dot, he likes mathematics, he was a Chaplain at a children’s hospital in Chicago.
Which means, he was one of the people you talked to, or couldn’t talk to, after your child died.
He’s a person I’d like to have a conversation with, and also a person I’ll never have a conversation with because I don’t actually know him, and striking up a casual conversation about the death of babies and about theodicy isn’t something I’m capable of, at least not in a sober state. If I were trapped in an elevator with John Green, I’d at best manage to say something like, “thank you for writing really good books,” or, if I were especially eloquent (and this never happens to me in real life), “thank you for writing really good books and for caring so much about your readers.” Then I’d stare at my toes and hope the elevator would move really quickly.
One of Green’s books, Looking for Alaska, happens to be a Printz award winner, which is a big deal. It’s well-written and hilarious and has a lot of things to say about learning and youth and grief that are strike me as true. While the book doesn’t offer any answers to my struggles with theodicy (and I’m not saying it should – that would be one hell of a narrow way to read a book), it helps, somehow, to know that someone is thinking and writing about grief and loss and religion in a questioning and non-saccharine way. Green has been interviewed more than once about Alaska. What follows is his response to a question about religion from the Penguin Reading Guide to Looking for Alaska:
Q. Miles learns to take religion seriously. Did you? And, if so, do you still take it seriously?
A. I did learn to take religion seriously, and in much the same way that Miles does: Donald Rogan was an excellent teacher. He was obviously smarter than me, and he found religion interesting, so I came to find it interesting also. Religion concerns itself with the same existential questions that I find interesting and important. I think I probably prefer the study of religion to the practice of it, though. That said, I do consider myself religious now. In high school, I had a classmate who attended a Southern Baptist church, and he was a nice guy, but he would always ask me questions about religion that I felt invaded my privacy. One time, he asked me, “How is your relationship with God, John?” I thought about it for a while, and then finally I said, “Complicated.” It was complicated then, and after studying religion in college and working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and seriously considering a career as a minister, it remains complicated. I’m not embarrassed by my faith, and I’m also not embarrassed by my doubt.
This is where I’d like to be some day. I don’t think I’ll ever see myself as the sort of person with all, or most, of the answers. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost forever the kind of faith that included the belief that God is some sort of personal friend who cares where my car keys are – I’ll be mourning that aspect of my faith for some time. But I’d like to get to the point where I could hold faith and doubt in some kind of balance, where I could be honestly thankful when saying grace at the dinner table with my parents and then add my own private ending of “and fuck you, God – you know why” to the blessing, and have that be okay.
Not that knowing where I want to be means I’ll get there, but maybe it improves my chances.