Tuesday, January 1, 2008
on being chosen
As a young girl of about seven or eight, I loved browsing through the Illustrated Children’s Bible in the waiting room when I went to get my weekly allergy shot. One picture I remember vividly: a darkened room, a boy in his bed, and a glowing Jesus standing in the middle of the room, arms outstretched. The boy was peering out from under the covers at Jesus, slightly afraid, or perhaps in awe. I never bothered to read the story on the page opposite the illustration; all I knew was that I wanted Jesus to come into my room like that. I wouldn't be afraid. I would crawl into his welcoming arms and rest there awhile, knowing he came just for me. I had faith, but I needed proof. I didn’t know then that faith was what you had when you didn’t need any proof.
At night, I would wait for Jesus under my pink gingham sheets. I would whisper under the covers, “Jesus, if you are really real, you will come into my room this night.” (I tried hard not to sound demanding or desperate or doubtful, but it never worked). I prayed. I made deals. I begged. Night after night. He never showed. I was raised to believe in miracles: Lazarus, loaves and fishes, the meek inheriting the earth (ok, this one hasn't happened yet, but I believed, and still believe, it will). I fully expected one to happen to me. I'd like to say that this was where my doubt in religion began. I'd like to say I was one of those wise-beyond-her-years characters in a novel. But instead of doubting Jesus, I doubted my own power to make him show up. As if making Jesus appear in my bedroom at night were actually something I had any control over!
The conclusion I drew was a sad one: obviously, I was not good enough, not pure enough, not worthy enough, for Jesus to come into my room at night.
About this same time, I saw the movie Escape to Witch Mountain. That's it! I was to be chosen not by Jesus, but by Magic. I had abilities far superior than the average child! I was a witch! I just knew I could make those sturdy books fly across the room and into my hands with sheer willpower. And so I sat on the sofa and stared across the living room at our bookshelves. Day after day, I applied myself to my new task. I concentrated. I focused. I almost passed out. Sometimes I swear I saw a book jiggle a little, especially the ones on the top shelf, but nothing ever came of it. And my doubt in my own power grew. Because I still believed in Magic.
I wonder how many kids today lie awake at night on the eve of their 11th birthday, waiting expectantly for an owl to show up.
Next it was the extraterrestrials. Fed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, my mind raced with the idea that aliens, surely, would see my desperate plight. During warm summer nights, my mother would let my brother and I sleep in the backyard under the stars. Staring up at the night sky, I waited for friendly aliens to come and carry me away to another, better place. I sent frantic, telepathic messages into the worlds beyond... Pick ME! Choose ME! I had no fear of them, just as I had no fear of a strange glowing man in my room at night. I knew they would come for me. I was special.
You know the ending.
Eventually, fundamentalist Christianity came along. Picture, if you will, a 13-year-old girl in the throes of puberty, lost in a spinning dance outdoors at the Jesus Northwest Festival. Somewhere in the middle of that crowded field, I met the holy spirit face-to-face (it was red, all red), fell on the grass, and, to this day, still don't know whether I laughed or wept. I hadn’t been chosen by Jesus or Magic or Aliens, but by God Himself! I’m still not exactly sure what happened to me that evening, but I do know that my body was aroused, my mind was open, the music was loud, and I felt, for the first time in my life, unconditional love.
I gave up on organized religion shortly thereafter, realizing hypocrisy at the ripe old age of 15 or so. At least I can say my foray into the born-again realm was short-lived. But the intensity of that evening has never left me. I have recreated it at other times in my life, with Dead shows or drugs or dancing or sex, but nothing has ever come close to that first time.
People who don’t understand evangelicals have never had this kind of experience, I would presume. They dismiss with disgust the swaying worshippers in New Life with their hypnotic music, hands in the air. I don’t laugh at them because I understand their desperate need to belong, to know someone loves them, to be chosen.
The thing about fundamentalists of all religions is that they KNOW they are chosen, and there is something powerful and soothing in that. And terribly, terribly frightening. If you believe you are chosen, you have all things instantly: faith, purpose, meaning, and all the right answers.
All this leads me to my own young children at this time of year, so willing to believe in Santa. Santa tells you that you are special... he reads YOUR letters, comes to YOUR house, knows just what YOU want. He feeds an ancient, holy, human need. For my older one, it is almost a desperate need. It seems as if he is clinging to his faith in Santa, even though he knows the truth already.
Younger: “I don't get it, I mean how do the reindeer actually FLY? And how does Santa get EVERYWHERE in one night with all those presents?"
Older: “Duh!.... MAGIC!” This one, he has all the answers. No questions asked. He believes fervently in dragons, ghosts, monsters, and magic. He believes all movies are real, no matter what we tell him to the contrary. He would believe in God so easily, if we just let him.
What I feel compelled to do now, more than anything, is to let people (my children, my students, random strangers on the street, my beloved few readers....) know that they are chosen. Maybe not for something great, but at least for something important. Something good, with meaning, that is ultimately larger than themselves. We cannot hope or pray or wish or will things into existence. We cannot make others come to us. We may have been abandoned, or we may just feel abandoned, but we can choose as well as be chosen. With this knowledge, comes power.
And what I know so deeply and painfully in my heart is this: If we don't let our kids know each and every fucking day of the year that we CHOSE them, that we love them NO MATTER WHAT, then SOMETHING ELSE WILL! It might be fundamentalist religion or a sexual predator or the wrong kid at the wrong time or shopping or addiction. Because to feel powerless and unloved in this world will make you a victim.
“Pick ME! Choose ME! Love ME!” Meredith pleads, begs, wails to McDreamy somewhere during the second (or third?) season of Grey’s Anatomy. Because it sucks not to be the chosen one.