In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
Someone once said, “It is rating one’s beliefs very high to roast a man alive on the strength of them.”
I’ve changed my beliefs many times. What seemed a self-apparent truth at one period seemed obviously fallacious a few years later.
I grew up in a vaguely Protestant home and rebelled as a teen-ager by joining the Catholic Church. However, after only a few months I discovered Aldous Huxley, who introduced me to Eastern mysticism; I realized that many of my beliefs were limited and provincial.
At twenty-two, I became a socialist, and lost my religious beliefs without even thinking about them. I can understand why socialists are so often atheists, because somehow these two changes happened to me simultaneously, though I’m still not sure why.
I held to this position for nearly twenty-five years, but curiosity about Zen Buddhism eventually drew me back to Eastern philosophy and then to a more mature Catholicism. I think I could be a Buddhist or a Quaker as easily, but there are no Buddhist temples or Friends meetinghouses in this area, and there is a Catholic church.
I’m glad I never wanted to kill the people with whom I disagreed, because I often became like them. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
I am ambivalent about my beliefs. On the one hand, they seem to shelter, encourage, nurture, and inform me. On the other, they seem to cramp, discourage, starve, and blind. Charles Williams said it nicely: “People believe what they want to believe.” That puts the responsibility where it belongs: it’s my problem.
“No problem at all,” my Zen teacher says. “You drink tea and I drink tea. That way we both know the taste of tea. What is there to discuss?” Too often I find myself discussing belief — with myself and others — instead of going to the nub of the matter. I believe in money or love or freedom or toothpaste or coffee grounds or anger or taxicabs or war or pregnancy. Certainly I’d be a fool not to acknowledge such things. But to nestle down among them, to make them the hearth and home of my being — that’s painful because it’s limited. The nub of the matter is not limited. What limitation is there when tasting tea? No matter how lofty, lyrical or lovely the description, there can be no substitute for experience. Belief is often a substitute.
But it is exactly at this point that belief can bear fruit, because the pain of limitation may suggest the wholly personal question, “For what experience is this belief a substitute?” To rely on the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or intellect for an answer only creates more substitutes, a world in which being is believing. But when the substitutes are gently but firmly set aside, when attention is focused and flexible, when circumstances come and go as easily as the breath, then, well . . . it’s pretty good tea, I believe.
New York, New York
I used to go to sleep with Bazooka bubble gum in my mouth, trusting I wouldn’t choke to death in my sleep, and I don’t do that anymore. Of course, I don’t chew Bazooka bubble gum anymore, partly because it wrecked my teeth. Anyway, I kind of disbelieve in eating white sugar — or anything white, except snow. God didn’t make much white (clouds come to mind) — it’s only Man who makes things white because Man wants things simple, and things aren’t simple. I believe that.
Not sleeping with Bazooka bubble gum in my mouth isn’t a changing belief, because now I’m traveling overland to India. That’s almost the same thing: tempting Fate or having Faith, whatever you want to call it.
Just now I cut my thumb breaking open a crate of “appels” (that’s what it says on the label, “Produce Of The Islamic Republic Of Iran”) and it made me more compassionate toward Ronald Reagan. I’d been enjoying his fall and suddenly thought: “Ouch! This is how it feels to be stung by Iran!”
I used to believe in romance. I now believe it is incorrect to believe in romance, but I still believe in romance.
I used to believe in my parents. When I was fifteen, I stopped believing in my parents. Now I half-believe in my parents. Sometimes I believe in half my parents.
For a while I believed in telling the truth to everyone except my parents. Now I believe in telling the truth only to two or three people.
When I was small, no one told me to believe in God, so I didn’t. After learning about the different varieties of God, I decided it was a good idea to believe in God. Then the Buddhists told me to believe in Dharma instead of God, and I thought they were sensible people. Now I only believe in God when I’m in the mood.
Traveling to India
The Lutheran Church has a semi-intensive Bible study and religious training program for pubescent children called “Confirmation.” What better time to turn the spirit toward salvation than when the gonads start kicking hormonal substances into the blood stream?
In the early Sixties I was a pubescent child, learning to deal with the psychological and physiological effects of ever-increasing levels of testosterone. I was also in Confirmation. After successful completion of this program, which included a one-hour review session before the Church Board of Directors, one was granted full Church membership. With this right of passage came a monogrammed Bible, a packet of fifty-two envelopes with your name imprinted on them (in which to give money to God), and a special Sunday ritual, in which the newly confirmed were allowed, for the first time, to receive Holy Communion. This is a sacrament in which one eats the bread which is symbolic of Christ’s body and drinks the wine symbolic of Christ’s blood.
The bread given on this special day was in the form of thin, dry unleavened wafers. It tasted terrible, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth. Not even the following shot of wine would dissolve it or break it loose. I nearly gagged.
I fought the urge to vomit as I walked back to my pew, with the taste of stale bread and Mogen-David in my mouth. Once seated, and quite sure no one was watching, I scraped the pasty thing off the roof of my mouth and stuck it between the pages of the nearest hymnal.
When the service was over, I walked home, went into my room, locked the door, took off my Sunday clothes, and masturbated. This action was in grave conflict with all my confirmed beliefs, which I had left stuck between the pages of the hymnal.
This afternoon, I served Campbell’s Chunky Chicken Noodle Soup to my two-year-old daughter. This may not seem like a big deal, but I come from the far east, where canned food is generally expensive, tastes awful and isn’t very nutritious. Here in America, it’s cheap, doesn’t taste bad and seems to have more nutrients. So I throw a few cans in the shopping cart as I walk the aisles.
I know that if I buy fresh chicken, vegetables, and noodles, and make the soup myself, it will be even less expensive and better-tasting. As to the nutrients, those listed on the can look impressive, but how much of it does the body assimilate? Not as much as the brain assimilates the list.
My beliefs about canned food have not changed. My willingness to spend time in front of the stove has.
Still, while Campbell’s soup is served with a dosage of guilt as high as that of salt, I’m thankful for all the cute tubs of yogurt, cottage cheese and tofu, sliced whole wheat bread, oats that cook in one minute, bran cereal, peanut butter, lentils that do not need overnight soaking, and rice that does not need rinsing. But if I fill my shopping cart with any more processed food than I do right now, may a whole display of Campbell’s Chunky Chicken Noodle Soup fall on my head.
Lake Elsinore, California
As I sit here and write, it is Christmas morning. I am alone, and will be alone all day. By choice. By chance. By necessity.
When I was little, I believed in Santa Claus, even the part about not getting any toys if I was bad. Actually I think it was the toys I believed in. Santa Claus was only the vehicle. He had no particular personality, except that he was jolly and kind, wintery in a warm, cozy way, and had a special vision that could see everywhere, even inside you.
Even though I believed in Santa, I never much wanted to sit on his lap, so it was no great crisis when I discovered he didn’t really exist. My first glimpse was seeing under the beard of the downtown Santa one year. And, around age seven, rationality began to intrude everywhere. How could Santa possibly get to every good child in the whole world in a single night? OK, helpers. But how could such a fat man get down such narrow chimneys? And what good was his sleigh in the warm South where there wasn’t any snow? And how could his reindeer land on steeply pitched rooftops? Of course big people had an answer for everything, but then I saw a newspaper cartoon, the caption of which read: “OK, isn’t it time you told him there ain’t no Santa Claus?” Presented with this, my mother got tears in her eyes as she told me the truth. I think for her it marked the end of my childhood, the magical part. I myself didn’t care that much, as long as it didn’t mean fewer toys on Christmas morning.
After Santa Claus, I believed in Jesus, though I’m sure there was some overlap. He also loved children, could see inside you, and cared very much if you were naughty or nice. But with Jesus, the stakes went up: instead of toys or no toys, now there was heaven or hell. Heaven seemed vague to me. It was a good place up in the sky where you never died or got sick, but life was already fun and exciting down here, so full of possibilities that one had a hard time really wanting to go to heaven if it meant leaving earth. But then hell was so frightful to think about as you fell asleep at night, like being sick forever, or never seeing your mother again, that one had to try to be nice.
What made a child nice was sharing your toys, even when you didn’t feel like it, not interrupting adults, not whining, not making teachers angry with you. What made a child naughty was breaking things (and then telling lies about it), cursing, picking on your younger sister, jacking off. Particularly jacking off. That was the worst, and one was constantly disappointing Jesus that way.
Slowly my rationality gained ground on my youthful belief in Jesus, and in college I gave it up altogether. In college I learned to believe in man — Western man, of course, particularly the New World variety (Americanus), freed from the stale institutions of Europe, enlightened, objective, scientific. As a believer in humanism, one saw clearly the inevitable progress of human culture if we didn’t let our emotions, fears, and irrationalities regress us back to savagery, as they did, for example, in Nazi Germany. Of course, I was also at the age (my own and my country’s) to believe in romantic love that culminated in the clean-cut suburban nuclear family. It all seemed part of one package that one might and did call “the good life.”
Somewhere in my mid-thirties, divorced, adrift, unemployed, I found myself believing in radical individuality, depth psychology, bioenergetics, primal therapy, Reichian orgasm — finding the core rightness and purity in oneself, and then living that purity, simply, directly, like a child again but with adult wisdom. I was reading books at the time which seriously claimed the natural human life span to be 150, 200, 250 years, and that a godlike existence was possible in one’s own lifetime. I believed that with enough intelligence, effort, and will, I could make myself whole again, I could rebirth myself, and that this wholeness — in a way I couldn’t explain but still believed in — would conquer even death. I believed in the revolution of one. We called it then holistic health. What a clear sunrise tomorrow promised.
Some years later, exhausted with self-improvement but still unclear, alone, mortal, my need to believe pulsated out again toward community, this time a new and more open community that transcended the obvious limitations of the enclosed nuclear family and sterile suburban lifestyles. But failures in beliefs were coming more rapidly now. Since then I have believed in work, solitude, love (the agape kind as opposed to the earlier eros). Recently I almost believed in art for a short time. Now, in my mid-forties, I find I believe in nothing. It’s very uncomfortable much of the time, most of the time, and I hear God vaguely whispering that I may be getting somewhere at last.
Petersburg, West Virginia