It’s a cold, wet day in Minneapolis. I was greeted upon leaving the house today by a disgusting, freezing mixture of rain and snow. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to turn around, call in sick and go back to bed.
This morning I was going through my email inbox and decided to clean out some subscriptions that have been cluttering things up. At some point I signed up for the Google and Amazon offers, but for some time I’ve just been deleting them as they tend to be things that most of us never end up using.
The cruelest offers for me are the ones for “couple weekends” or “____ for two.” It’s egocentric, of course, to assume that the universe would conspire against me in this way. It’s my subjective experience superimposing a narrative over arbitrary events and happenstances that causes the bile to rise in my stomach at the thought that Google is mocking my continued and miserable single existence. But I have a hard time not taking it somewhat personally.
A few months ago I cleaned out my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house, shortly after the events of Christmas day when I cut ties with them completely. They were going to be out of town for a few days and asked me to come by and finish moving all of my stuff out while they were gone. The results were about eight full paper shopping bags of recycling, four large trash bags, several bins that I took to the local Goodwill, and a large box of Christian fundamentalist books I’d amassed over the years. It made me realize just how much stuff we hold on to for purely sentimental, irrational reasons. There were magazines I still have memories reading and enjoying; notebooks of math homework and past assignments; papers I wanted to store for future reference that I hadn’t looked at in years. These were things I had no reason to keep and was just taking up unnecessary space, but felt uneasy and even defensive about getting rid of. It’s anal-retentive, yes, but it still felt comforting to know that a record of my past was in a box somewhere. Needless to say, feeling the weight of nearly twenty-five years-worth of paper and finally putting those bags in the recycling bin was surreal. But it felt good to be free of it at the same time.
The same could be said of my religious beliefs. This past weekend we had a bi-monthly former fundamentalists gathering at a coffee shop near Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis, where part of the gathering is going around and telling our stories of how we left religion. Part of the reason for that is because we generally have someone new at the meeting every time, so we want to give them an opportunity to tell their own story and have their own experience affirmed, as well as to hear our stories. It helps to hear these stories as it reminds us that we’re not alone, even though it often feels like that in a culture where one of the most-often-asked questions is, “Where do you go to church?” and where references to god or to prayer are too common.
For years I held on to my religious beliefs for largely the same reason as I held on to all that stuff. It was comforting and familiar, and I had strong emotional attachments to it. It was my past and my present; my family and my community. But they were gathering dust, and I hadn’t really looked at them in years, and if I had to be totally honest with myself it wasn’t likely that I was going to look at them again any time soon. I hadn’t truly believed in years, even when doing all the research to prove that the bible wasn’t really incompatible with homosexuality—that it was the religious leaders and translators who were prejudiced and bigoted. In reality I was just trying to find reasons to continue pretending that I was a Christian after all. In retrospect, I’m not sure if I ever believed at all, even as a child.
After a couple of moves, my attitude towards “stuff” has changed radically. Whereas ten years ago I couldn’t imagine being able to let go of anything, now I look at all of my possessions with the knowledge that someday I’m going to have to pack all of this stuff up into boxes—and do I really want to lug this downstairs to the truck, haul it across country and then lug it all the way up into my new apartment? It’s just not worth it.
As an atheist now, I view my beliefs largely the same. Knowing that we are finite beings, with an afterlife highly unlikely and this life being all there is, I now treat my beliefs with the same economical thriftiness as I do my belongings. Belief in god and all of the suppositions that go along with that when there is little to no evidence for belief in such a being now feels like lugging a heavy box around.
One of the tenets of Buddhism is renunciation of possessions and the hold that they have on the self. While I don’t believe in any sort of universal consciousness or spirituality, there’s a lot of wisdom in that. It takes work and energy to hold on to things, and they inevitably weigh us down through upkeep and the effort it takes to retain them. One website I looked at said this about Buddhist philosophy: “The quest for comfort is also futile as it is the nature of our mind that the feeling of happiness when our desire is satisfied is only temporary… Thus we spend our lives in the vain and futile quest for possessions, experiences, relationships and more and we are never satisfied. We are forever projecting outward.”
If we’re ever going to be free, our perception towards “stuff” needs to change.