Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Thel vs. Thel

Here's a discussion I've been having inside my head lately: -Hey Thel, what's up with the church thing?

-The church thing?

-Well, you don't take any of it literally, right?

-Not for a few years, no.

-A few years?

-I guess so. Sometime after college.

-Okay, so...? If you don't believe it's necessary that a person must base their morality either on the patched-together religious texts of an old Middle Eastern tribal community, or on the confusing and contradictory hearsay record of what an itinerant Israeli might have had to say a couple millenia ago, then why do you still head over there every Sunday to hear all about it?

-Look, it's not like it's some fundie place. Nobody is interested in shoving anything down anyone's throat. They're all about the peace, love, social justice, taking care of each other, that kind of thing--they couldn't care less whether eveyone's matching up their innies and their outies correctly, or any of the other inane shit that seems to pass for Christianity half of the time.

-But you already know all that. You don't need them to validate what you know about living well and doing right. You wouldn't change your mind or your convictions about right and wrong even if they said God told you to, right?


-So why go?

I haven't come up with a good answer even for myself yet (so naturally I'll drag the issue out into the blog). It's something blurry like, "I like the people there; I've made friends there; they give me hope that people of faith are not necessarily small-minded and afraid, that many of them are expansive and generous to a fault. Plus, they're a more-or-less organized and optimistic group of liberals--how rare is that?!"

(It doesn't hurt that the pastor lets us borrow his canoe.)

Last week I stumbled a little closer to the answer when I got back from a trip to Value Village. We'd taken over a carload full of stuff to donate--old vases and candle holders, knick knacks and random clutter that's been shuffled from place to place with me for years. I got tired of griping about all the useless crap we have lying around and made good on my lazy vow to throw it all out someday.

One bag that we left at Value Village was full of old stuffed animals. I rescued most of them from my parents' house last year when they sold it. For eight years an assortment of lumpy teddy bears and threadbare dolls sat quietly in the tiny closet of the upstairs bedroom my sister and I had shared, the same bedroom my mom had lived in when she was in high school. (She had painted the walls a brilliant groovy aquamarine color sometime between 1968 and 1972, and they stayed that color until my sister and I moved in in 1994 and painted them an extraordinarily creative and daring shade of white.) I went through the closet last summer and took a few of the stuffed animals that held the most sentimental value and evoked the most vivid memories, leaving the rest for my parents' Goodwill donation.

I brought the scraggly things back up to Seattle with me, but they just sat on the dresser looking foolish for a year. Really, what use does a 26-year-old woman have for a collection of stuffed animals? With less than 700 square feet of living space...well, I had to admit that the floppy creatures were not paying their share of the rent.

I had to do it fast, once I'd acknowledged that getting rid of toys was not the same as throwing away memories, because if I let myself I will always get maudlin about change. I knew that if I had a chance to sit down and reminisce about how I carried Tizz the fuzzy dog with me everywhere I went for a year or so, or how my sister and I set up elaborate housing developments for our animals, sentiment would prevail over reason and I would end up dragging a motley set of raggedy-ass creatures with me for another few years until I once again got sick of the clutter and let them go.

So, out they went. Quick and painless. But sure enough, about a week later I found myself regretting it. I thought about that floppy-eared dog, Tizz, and how soft she was when I'd cry into her, and how much life I'd imagined into her, and I suddenly felt like I'd abandoned a real pet. I imagined her staring at me reproachfully, unable to believe that I could cruelly let her go without so much as a goodbye, and I got myself almost worked up enough to shed a tear for Tizz the poor abandoned puppy.

This is ridiculous, I thought. She was a childhood friend, in a way, but you outgrew her a long time ago; and then I thought, This feels familiar.

It took me a few seconds to place it, but I got it. It's the same feeling I get when I think about what my youth group leader used to gravely call, "Leaving the faith." When I think about openly acknowledging the fact that I don't see religion as a core part of my life anymore, I feel that same guilty pang. There was a picture of a doe-eyed Caucasian Jesus in the children's illustrated Bible I had when I was little, and I always start to feel like I'm abandoning him--the invisible friend who promised he would always like me, regardless of my current rational beliefs about his existence or lack thereof.

It's exactly how I felt when I returned from dropping off my old friend Tizz at Value Village.

On the other hand, the stuffed animal was, finally, just a representation of a few good memories. She was an object that evoked a certain thoroughly rose-tinted picture of my childhood, but leaving her at the thrift store was a relatively painless act. Me and Jesus, though...I mean, he represents an entire worldview, one I lived in for most of a quarter of a century, and I went through a lot with him. I've spent a few nights talking things over with him, sniffling snot all over, and I've done my share of snarling and swearing at him, too. We're past all that: I feel like I've made a kind of peace about him, now, and I don't have a lot of strong feelings left one way or the other. But, man...it's still pretty tough to think about leaving Jesus at the Value Village, and that's how I feel when I think about identifying as an atheist.

I guess I'm just not up to it yet. I can't be sure I ever will. That's about as honest as I can be about it.