“I can’t stand moral absolutism. You know, there’s always that guy who wants to point out that Martin Luther King cheated on his wife– as if he obviously couldn’t have been a great person if he did something like that. Or someone will bring out an inspirational quote, and get you to agree, and then inform you that Hitler said it. As if a good thought couldn’t come from Hitler. Moral absolutism keeps us from learning from the past. It’s easy to say: ‘Hitler was a demon. Nazis were all bad seeds.’ That’s simple. It’s much harder to say: ‘Is that humanity? Is that me?’”
-Humans of New York
One of the worst, and ironically, one of the most impactful movies I’ve ever seen was an animation called “Sausage Party.” I watched it in theaters and 30-minutes into the movie I had to restrain myself from going back to the Ticket Office and requesting a refund. (Fun Fact: up to an hour into a movie you can get a full refund if you don’t like it – the shit you learn working at a movie theater in high school). I challenged myself to be more open-minded, so for the duration of film I stuffed my mouth alternating between the popcorn and Icee to keep myself engaged. The film brought all items in the grocery store to life – as in Toy Story. These grocery store items desired to be hand selected by humans and placed in their carts to be taken to the “Great Beyond,” which represented the pinnacle of happiness. Some items primed themselves to increase their chances of being selected. Whereas, other items conducted themselves based off desire regardless of the consequences. In the final scene of the film, the main characters are finally selected – they’re elated as they pursue their journey to the “Great Beyond.” Once brought to the home of different humans, they quickly realize that this euphoric destination is nothing but a façade. The grocery items were being cut, boiled, blended, etc – where they expected to meet elation, they found excruciating pain.
I walked out the film flabbergasted at the unconventional method to spark a parallel discussion of: What if heaven is a hoax? I was fascinated by how such a heavy topic was guised in a youthful medium of a cartoon, in the genre of comedy and in the most mundane of environments: the grocery store. To this day, I find myself revisiting the motifs of this film. Specifically, what are the perils of deferring joy – the notion of sacrificing self in the present, for a greater reward in an unwitnessed realm in the future? How does the human psyche interact with immediate gratification if fulfillment is marketed as not being attainable in this physical dimension? Is religion a form of organized escapism, to rationalize individualized hollowness and collective disconnectedness and/or disarray?
I never quite understood why people hold on so tightly to their dogmas when their first interaction with religion is purely happenstance. At the roll of a dice, we are born into a particular era, region, and family; our belief system is entirely circumstantial and crafted by our environment. Yet, our belief systems get drilled so deeply into our conscious we mistake it for our own. We inherit beliefs and are deterred from questioning it as an act of existential obedience yielding the “limitations of the human wit” to a higher power. I never quite fit in the system of organized religion – my earliest recollection of church was being sent to sit in the back of Sunday School for being disruptive. Sister Elizabeth was quizzing us on individuals and their stories in the Bible and I kept answering each question as “God did that” to her discontent. She was searching for a more specific answer like “Abraham” or “Joshua,” but I refuted her expectations. I didn’t understand why the church insisted on convoluting who God was and diluting the message through the parables of humans. Why overcomplicate the simple? Why must we romanticize the created to distill its creator? My Mamaiay kindled my natural curiosity; to seek out answers that questioned what was accepted as common knowledge. In the church, I enjoyed testing the limits of wit and dogma. Religion is the most antiquated institution in the world and its proponents, like Sister Elizabeth, dispelled anything that threatened its sanctity.
My Mamaiay’s relationship with the church is atypical for Habesha women who are traditionally devout believers. When I was eight, I remember neighbors coming to our apartment to deliver the bad news that my Mamaiay had lost four siblings and her mother in one car accident. Two months later, her father also passed away. My Mamaiay’s heart hardened and she proclaimed there was no God – and if there was that he wasn’t just. She ceased going to church and observing any Orthodox practices for years. I’m not sure what, or who, reintroduced my Mamaiay to church but she didn’t last very long. She disliked how Habesha churches felt like more of a recreational center than a center of worship. She felt that when you’re burdened by the judgement of your peers, you’re unable to truly focus on God. As an unfamiliar face to the church she was constantly met with “where are you from?” As an Eritrean by blood, having grown up in Mekele, and having lived in Addis – this was a loaded question to answer. Whenever she would answer this question, she’d constantly be questioned as to why she didn’t go to the Habesha church that served the Tigray, or Eritrean demographic – she had to justify her presence in a church because the identity of the constituents varied from her. Religion amongst Habesha churches in Seattle were heavily politicized, and she wanted no parts of it.
In my teenage years, I watched my Mamaiay steer away entirely from traditional and institutionalized religion and develop her own path with how she sought out and interacted with God. I would accompany her during her trips to Chinatown as she delved into Eastern practices and began accruing incense, crystals and herbs. She was an avid reader, and hoarded books on spirituality. She practiced mindfulness, breathing exercises, and meditated on a daily cadence. I didn’t grow up seeing or hearing my Mamaiay pray, although, she did talk about God a lot. She didn’t fast during tsom, but fasted on her own schedule and when I’d ask, she retort, “Why focus on the rules, rather than the heart?” She had zero tolerance when it came to the social cohesion and performative components of religion.
In hindsight, I’ve realized that my first bout with religion was a force of escapism. During the adversity I faced during my childhood, I held onto this notion that God would deliver me from all pain and suffering with a death grip. That whatever I lacked today; I would have in surplus tomorrow. I didn’t quite know God, nor did I understand him, but I figured if God could get me out of a bad situation, I’d be on his team – it was the only thing that kept me sane. Romans 8:18 was a mantra of mine, “I consider our present sufferings not to be worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” My relationship, admittingly, was transactional and rooted in futuristic outcomes. I wasn’t seeking God; I was seeking relief. As I got older, my relationship with God and my overall views on religion went through multiple renditions through observation and practice. My extended family reflected diverse religious backgrounds – you had the Orthodox Christians, the Pentes, the Jehovah Witnesses and the Bahais. My Mamaiay and I were the Black Sheep – who refused to ingest what God looks like to others, in exchange, to pursue what God looks like to ourselves.
The friends I met through Sunday School spoke of God as a disciplinarian than a counselor. They shoved the ever-approaching date of Judgement Day down my throat and demanded that I repent for my sins lest I perish. Fear-based coercion doesn’t work for me, and I struggled justifying loving someone that demanded my love in exchange for everlasting life. This narrative seemed toxic. I wanted to walk towards and build my relationship with God out of autonomy and love, not out of haste and fear. The fable, “The North Wind and The Sun,” captures my sentiment best:
The North Wind boasted of great strength. The Sun argued that there was great power in gentleness.
“We shall have a contest,” said the Sun.
Far below, a man traveled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.
“As a test of strength,” said the Sun, “Let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man.”
“It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat,” bragged the Wind.
The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew down the road, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.
Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat.
The sun grew slowly brighter and brighter.
Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.
“How did you do that?” said the Wind.
“It was easy,” said the Sun, “I lit the day. Through gentleness I got my way.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the performance of religion, and how we as humans use religious texts as a means of placing bumpers along the lanes of our life to keep us safe and on track. It’s somewhat of a lazy opt-out for day to day life operations. If you allow religion to develop values and a life roadmap for you, you rely less on your own mind to craft these existential systems for itself. This is where groupthink flourishes, and when good intentions of the church can morph into destructive execution. As humans, our minds are programmed to compartmentalize so we can optimize our brain usage and detect any threats. Religious institutions exacerbate the compartmentalization of good vs bad, safety vs danger. I’ve found irony in when Pastors preach about Christ’s crucification without any acknowledgement of the crucification church members bestow upon one another. Why is the collective religious body invested in what a member wears to church, how much they donate, their significant other, their night out etc? It felt that the “come as you are” messaging was nothing more than a corporate slogan, church was the grounds for gossip rather than God. The lack of compassion and inclusivity amongst religious entities deters individuals from exploring and cultivating their Faith, arguably, what could be a greater sin than to taint one’s perception and steer them away from God? Why don’t the constituents treat each other in the same manner that a teacher encourages a student who is struggling to sit at the front of the class, rather than defame them? Because of ego and self-righteousness. Judgment that brews within the church is an extension of human ego – of a future life! I’d watch Christians essentially transcending their ability to pass judgement to that of a higher power by saying God will reward or smite you in the next life based on your actions. I distanced myself from the church because I wanted to fully connect to God in my way, than partially as part of a collective.
I had a friend inquire about my “life of duality.” He didn’t understand how I would talk about God yet act in a manner that conflicts with God’s teachings. I drink, I cuss, I play secular music, I love BDSM sex, I’m pro-gay marriage, and I’m pro-choice. He was essentially asking me; How can you be all of these things yet still worship God? It’s interesting how as humans we try to polarize good from the bad, right from the wrong and project these perceptions onto others. It’s not my job to decipher what’s right or wrong. It’s not my scope to pass on judgement. I’ve always viewed the path to God, similarly to the path to success – everyone paves their own way, it’s not a copy and paste feat. If you allow people to be who they are in the present, they’ll be able to develop an honest relationship with God. As humans, we’ve become so acclimated to transactional love that we struggle with the realization that we cannot earn God’s love. Nor, can we lose it. God’s love was merely given to us, unconditionally. For that reason, I don’t scrutinize my actions or that of others and try to play God. I just meet God where I am, and I meet others where they are. I’m not mandated to fit this ideal of a Christian to be worthy of reaching out God. Perfection isn’t a prerequisite, receptivity is.
One of my greatest fears in life is death because of the unknown of what happens after. Is it heaven? Do we return to ash? Is there an in-between dimension? I really grapple with this concept of “nothingness” because it threatens my ego. How can I be here today, and completely cease to exist tomorrow? Why do I find solace in Heaven? As a child, I thought Heaven was whatever you wanted it to be. So, if you were a hooper it’d be nonstop scrimmages. Then, someone else told me Heaven is where you pray all day. Okay, that’s cool but not as fun, queue Biggie, “It don’t make sense going to heaven with the goodie goodies.” I’m trying to avoid living in a futuristic state, I don’t want Heaven to be my North Star, because I want to seek fulfillment right here in the present. I won’t let “my treasure is in Heaven” antics cloud my relationship with life. Tomorrow isn’t promised, and Heaven, like the “Great Beyond” may too be a facade.
I begin and end each day with complete silence in my room, and spend a few minutes talking to God. I’m working hard at eliminating transactional elements of our relationship by ultimately, mastering my ego. I am nobody. I have nothing. I am going nowhere. This allows me to truly seek God and not his gifts. I now find myself speaking more words of gratitude than expectation. I feel closest to God when I’m in utter isolation and immersed in nature. I’ve become significantly less materialistic and more agile with how I interact with the world. I’ve realized that joy isn’t an additive substance, but rather joy emerges when you remove the unnecessary. As I evolve, so will my relationship with God and I’m grateful for the heave-ho of growth. God planted in me, a seed of curiosity – and I plan to nurture that until my mind caves and my body wilts. I unapologetically, would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than closed by belief. I’ve been lucky too many times to just believe in luck, although I’m done deliberating the intentions of God from the receiving end. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what “nothing” is. I don’t know what it means to truly exist. I don’t know where the lines of the body, mind and soul intersect. What I do know, is that you enjoy the ride more in the passenger than the driver’s seat – so I choose to be open to what comes, or what doesn’t, in this life and the next.
Faith to me? Isn’t in hoping for the best, it’s in not minding what happens.
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