'Is There A God?'
Searching for salvation sometimes means ignoring yourself.
|Heather Havrilesky||May 6|| 20||1|
Plague Hospital (1798-1800) by Francisco Goya
Your words and your honesty and vulnerability have gotten me through some pretty hard times in the past, and I have a lot of gratitude for that, and for you. But I have a lot of something else right now too, and that's utter existential dread. It's bad. And I'm finding that I can't keep my mind from going to the "Is there a god?" place. The "What does anything matter because I'm just a flash in the vast breadth of time?" place. And by "going to" I mean obsessing about.
Can you help?
Because of the pandemic I'm pretty much confined to my one-bedroom suburban apartment -- it's just me and my high-maintenance cat. I'm trying valiantly to work, and am grateful that I still have a job, but I also must be spending like four hours a day trying to make some sense of life by reading "On Being" interview transcripts. It kinda helps. Maybe. I'm also exercising and eating well and getting outside for the occasional walk. Those seem to help less, at least insofar as my sudden onset spiritual crisis goes.
All this lockdown time has opened up something vast and scary in me. I'm not religious. Historically, I suppose I would call myself agnostic, but oh man, do I need god right now (??!!). And just writing those words feels, for me, so colossally unfamiliar and weird.
Some people go to their priest or rabbi or wise old family member on this one, but I'm coming to you because I feel like I can relate to you. I trust you. Again, the honesty and vulnerability. Basically, I would love your thoughts on one really complex question: Do you have a sense of god right now?
Thanks for being there,
Lost In Thought
Oh boy. I’ve had a challenging week but I have to write this column right now so it can go up today, like I promised. I am a good student. I don’t miss deadlines. And I love your letter so much.
And yet, here I am, a little disoriented and not at my absolute best, with a global pandemic as a backdrop, living inside my own big question mark. Here I am, just an insignificant, fragile animal, being asked to drop some knowledge about GOD, of all things. I am not Krista Tippett or Brené Brown. People often ask me, “Have you read Brené Brown?” Motherfucker, I have not read Brené Brown and I am not going to read her anytime soon, either, because I haven’t completed my own course of study on vulnerability. This isn’t about competitiveness. (It was before, though! Own me!) This is about me knowing myself. I can read the Tao Te Ching (not that really I do) and I have often read Cheryl Strayed (love Dear Sugar so hard) but I generally don’t read advice or self-help because I like to write my way forward instead.
I recognize that I could get to my destination faster, using someone else’s map. But I’d rather take my time. I’d rather draw a map that’s strange and incomplete and just a tiny bit illuminative than use someone else’s. I want to pull ideas out of thin air. I want to scrape up all of my experiences and build from there. Besides, I don’t want you to see me as someone with answers. I want you to really see me, low to the ground, starting from zero, just like you and everyone else without a nude microphone attached to their faces. Once you put on that nude microphone, you might as well be wearing a gold crown. I’d rather make a crown out of rusted old cans and wear that and proclaim myself the King of the Whole Godforsaken Universe than wear a nude microphone. I want murky art that tells your nerves to FEEL MORE NOW more than I want clear answers. I’m sure there’s some perfect Brené Brown quote that sums up what I just said, though. I don’t want to know. I want to be right here instead: unaware, confused, wrong about most things. That’s who I am. I like being this way.
When it comes to working on my life, I want to write my own map. I used to feel confused and ashamed about that, but I’m a decent map maker, so now I’m just rolling with it. Oh, also, one of my maps says I get to do exactly what I want. That’s god to me: Trusting yourself, and noticing that the world rushes in to greet you when you do.
I try not to hurt other people. Otherwise, I’m free. It’s not that simple, of course (see also: every scene in every episode of every season of “The Good Place”). But let’s move on, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover and I don’t even have a map for us yet.
This is what I love, okay? Someone gives me a new destination, and I cut through the jungle without knowing what I’ll find. I have a new friend who’s great at emotional bushwhacking, too. She’s kind of a guru and I think she does sometimes put on the nude mic. I usually avoid guru types, but we just kept bumping into each other (in real life, not online, and not in any guru context, either). Anyway, we talk all the time now, and she often stops and says “See, that’s Piaget! He blarga blarga blarga…” and I plug my fucking ears because I have a psychology degree and I half-remember that stuff but mostly I’m just trying to forget all of it, plus I guarantee you that my friend is 50 times smarter than 50% of the people she quotes regularly.
I love starting with nothing instead. And in conversation with my brilliant friend, my feeling is: Don’t waste our time with old men’s words! Let’s build this from the ground up, together! We have so much wild intelligence, bouncing around inside our skin, every day, dying to pour out! It’s easy to roll your eyes at that. I know. But that’s god to me: that kind of connection and those kinds of conversations. You feel electric. You feel like two demigods, falling madly in love.
You can also find god in your sub-basement, where your damage and your baggage and your trauma and your fears live. In some ways, talking about god is down there in my sub-basement with my fears. I was raised Catholic, after all. Maybe Krista Tippett is down there, too. I would rather use other words to conjure transcendence and divinity. I’m just not that into god — the word or the imaginary man or religion or the pious notions that spring forth from those things, many of which seem to keep women conveniently locked up in some sub-basement and treated as sub-human half-persons. (Thank you again, Elizabeth Spiers, for that term.) (Okay maybe Elizabeth Spiers is my guru.) (And it looks like she does speaking gigs!)
When I was a kid, I was suspicious of god. Going to Catholic mass and proclaiming “We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” as a group tends to make you doubt everything you’re saying, kind of like how putting on a nude microphone makes you doubt that you have anything to offer anyone anywhere. When I was little, I used to dare god to prove to me that he existed. He failed every test. Ultimately, god was just one more adult who ignored me when I needed him.
Now we’re in my sub-basement for real. Because I experience myself as pretty tough and resilient. I’ve been through some shit this year, and I can’t believe how good I feel, in spite of everything. I don’t mean I’m shutting everything down and muting my feelings. I mean I’m managing well. I’m making pretty good choices. The stakes are high, as you know, so we’re all working overtime to stay balanced, to keep from experiencing vertigo, to stop ourselves from losing it completely.
But I’m also learning a lot. And lately I’ve realized that what triggers me is being ignored. When I’m ignored, I try to be good, to do better, so I can win more love. I still want to be a good girl, an A student, an obedient listener. I want to improve and work harder. But when I do everything right and I still feel ignored? A kind of panic sets in. I think some people call it “addiction” and other people call it “fixation” and I probably need a name for my version of it. But I hate being ignored so much. It’s at the very center of my damage. Big fucking surprise, right? The lady with the column and the two newsletters and the super obnoxious Twitter feed hates being ignored!
My mother once told me that she felt guilty that I was ignored as a baby. Not the whole time I was little, just the first year I was alive. My parents were in Vancouver that year, shit was wild, the clocks were melting off the walls, etc. I was less than a year old and I was at my neighbor’s apartment a lot while my parents were out, separately I guess, out in two different places. I don’t remember anything! These aren’t my stories to tell. And when my mom mentioned years ago that she felt guilty about that year because things were very, very fucked up, I laughed out loud. I couldn’t remember! Hahahaha! I had quite a few other crystal clear memories I wanted to discuss with her instead!
But now I think fear of being ignored lives at the very center of who I am: Feeling helpless and abandoned and searching for help but still wanting to be the good one, the nice one, the loving one, the sweet one. I’ve always equated asking for help with being very, very bad. (Oh god, no wonder I won’t read Brené Brown! I consider it weak to look for help! Hot damn this map we’re drawing together is messy!)
So that’s me. And this week I realized that I’m conflicted about asking for help even when I’m in a lot of pain. I feel like it’s wrong to ask for help, even when things are terrible. And when people ask me, “Do you need help?” I usually say, “Noooo, I’m fine.” And sometimes I get mad at them for even asking. Not normal!
And if you’re anything like me, sometimes you take that feeling of needing help and being ignored, and you focus it all on one parent-like human, one Mommy-like person who will save you. A partner, a lover, a friend, a stranger. You imprint on a new Mommy for no good reason, and you don’t even know why. Some trait is there that brings it all back, the good and the bad. You need the bad part, too. You don’t know why. And sometimes you have trouble sorting the good Mommies from the bad Mommies. But you don’t want an adult peer or an ordinary friend sometimes. This is the sub-basement, people. You want a Mommy. Or you want to be a Mommy. Or both.
So anyway. I’m tough most of the time. I love to cry, but I went through some shit this week that was stressful, physically painful, intense, dark, and scary, and I didn’t break. The people around me might’ve been gentler with me if I had been clearer about how vulnerable I was feeling. But I couldn’t afford to show them, okay, Brené Brown? I had to grit my teeth and get through it. Sometimes you feel grateful for your damage. Sometimes it comes in handy.
And when it was over? There was no backlash. I didn’t remain stuck in a traumatized place. That doesn’t mean someone else who cried all the way through and felt traumatized was weaker than I am. I’m just telling you where I think my strength and resilience comes from. I’m trying to say that even when I was ignored, I stayed by my own side. I had empathy for myself (but not so much that I fell apart!). I was (mostly) patient. I tried to stay calm and not think too much. I tried to welcome in all of the bad things along with the good. I watched and waited. I didn’t search anxiously for a fix, some help, someone to save me. I stayed very still.
Of course I know I'm just a flash in the vast breadth of time. But I’m good to myself even when no one else is. I love my life and I believe in what I make. I don’t really care if my crown is made of rusted-out cans. I like this fucking crown the best. I feel good because I’m trusting myself. I’m not ignoring myself anymore.
Did you hear that part? I’m not ignoring myself anymore. That’s god. When you believe in your heart that you’re totally helpless and you’re being ignored OR you’re in the driver’s seat and you’re responsible for the fate of the entire world? That duality is the opposite of god. It puts all of the fear and all of the shame on you, and you’re bad no matter what you do. You’re powerless and your powerless is all your fault, somehow. Or you’re in charge of everything and the whole world is your fault. It’s like a black and white Rubik’s cube that’s impossible to solve. That’s not god.
So. While I think that this spiritual quest that you’re on is good and rewarding and it’s probably helping you a lot, I do wonder if ASKING BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD is starting to feel like your way of struggling to get into the driver’s seat and drive.
I wonder if reading books about god, and asking the question, “Do you have a sense of god right now?” and also trying to answer that question, over and over, every day, is becoming a little bit like trying to take control of the uncontrollable. I wonder if you’re making an intellectual puzzle out of something that’s very emotional for you. I wonder if there’s an emotional sub-basement beneath the basement you’ve probably already visited. I wonder if you’re being triggered not just by this darkness across the globe, but also by some long, lost feeling that you can barely look at without looking away immediately.
I can’t answer that for you. All I know is that if you examine those long, lost feelings, you might find god there. Because god is in your darkest feelings and memories the same way that god is in the good and the bad of this worldwide shit storm, the same way that a mother can stand for pure love and pure loss, the same way that we make a mother out of an imaginary lover, the same way that we ask our friends and family to help us through our sub-basements without even knowing it. My experiences this year have been unnerving, but cleared a path to god, too.
Yesterday my smart guru friend texted me to see how I was doing and we started to talk about trauma. It’s easy enough to doubt that my trauma is real. I know that stress can sort of re-wire a baby’s nervous system. But who knows what happened?
Still, my friend understood everything, and had similar feelings about being ignored, and – I don’t know why this is important, but it feels important? – when I described how I had been feeling helpless but I was still trying to be good earlier this week, she wrote, “I feel very compassionate for that part of you.” And I burst into tears.
When she wrote that, it felt like I was finally getting some kind of love I didn’t even know I needed. I felt like she understood the most fragile, conflicted core of who I am. That mattered, somehow. We weren’t demigods anymore. We were in my sub-basement together. That’s connection. That’s god.
My sense of god is that if there is a god, then god wants us to love ourselves. But he also wants to challenge us to love everything else under the sun, including despair and death and sadness and chaos. He (yeah, pronouns, but let’s just keep rolling, we’re running out of words) wants us to find a way through the really bad shit. He wants us to feel all of it, and grow from there. He wants us to protect ourselves from the bad stuff, but he also wants us to learn something from feeling ignored and helpless. There are times when we can’t take control. There are times when everything feels out of our hands. The difference between god and religion is that religion BLAMES US FOR OUR LACK OF CONTROL, but god doesn’t. God forgives us for who we are. He wants us to find each other in the darkness. He wants us to crawl on our hands and knees. He wants us to cry so hard that suddenly we feel weightless, gorgeous, glorious, like demigods, like love itself. He wants us to worship love.
The world is very scary right now. It feels chaotic out there. It’s in the air. We might all go mad – alone, together. But this world still feels glorious to me, even when I’m sad and I’m in pain. So if there is a god, and the jury’s still out on that, god must really love me a lot. That’s how it feels, anyway. If there isn’t a god, some magic in this world has made me more joyful and more resilient the more I open my heart, even when I’m so scared I can’t see straight.
I don’t think god is a black and white Rubik’s Cube. I think you get to know god by knowing yourself. God is filled with good things and bad things, just like you are. The more I get to know myself, the more I see that I’m filled with good and bad, and the more I learn to love myself in spite of everything. God is probably more of an animal than we think. Maybe he’s predator and prey, just like humans are. We’re always told that god hovers way above us, that he is most definitely NOT an animal, but when I allow myself the basic right to be a simple animal, I feel god inside my cells.
It’s magical, being an animal. It’s magical to love your desires, to love your own ugliness, to love your weird evasive maneuvers, to love your conflicted, good-student soul, to love your pain, to love your loneliness, to love darkness and light alike. Even though everything sucks right now, I still discover new sources of joy and sadness and longing every day. I still love wandering and drawing my map.
That’s god. Welcoming it all in, even when it looks scary. Walking into the sub-basement to see what you’ll find, even when you’re afraid. Separating the light from the darkness, and seeing that it’s good.
How could it all be good? How do you get there?
You stop trying to figure everything out. You ask: Where am I? You find a friend and ask: Where are you? You wait to see who is honest with you. You tell that person that you love their honesty. You learn how to say things like, “I feel very compassionate for that part of you.” You learn how to feel your connection to other people, in real time. You learn how to say honest things that might make a difference to someone else.
Be where you are. You’re not in the driver’s seat. You’re not in control. Just show up and ask questions. Show up and cry. Show up and tell the truth.
Stop looking for definitive answers about the universe and take in this moment. The whole world is inside the question mark now. Let this moment be what it is. Lie down on your floor and stare up at the ceiling and feel where you are. Will we make it? Am I okay? Where am I? Do I matter at all? Stay inside the question mark.
Tomorrow, you’ll wake up and your cells will know something they didn’t know before. That’s god. Trust your cells. You do matter. Your job is to humble yourself enough that you learn how to worship love again, the way you did when you were small. Stop ignoring yourself, and you’ll start to see love everywhere.
God is not a puzzle. God has not abandoned you. You are not helpless. You are not in control. God is already here. Reach into this uncertainty until you know in your heart that you are already loved.
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