You may know some of “them.” (What’s it say about us that we say “them”?) They’re often wonderful people, they raise families, they “contribute to society,” they’re fun to be around — and they may seem not to have a religious or spiritual bone in their bodies. And that’s not only something to “tolerate” or “accept.” It’s just as it should be. “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead,” says H. D. Thoreau.
Two couples whose company my wife and I delight in and seek out certainly qualify as non-religious: you can see their unease or discomfort if the topic happens to come up in conversation. An innocent question, or a comment in passing. “What’s that pin you’re wearing?” or “What did you do last month when you were in Minneapolis?” And hearing our answer, a kind of stiffness, a change in expression, a wilting, or wariness. “Oh no,” you can practically hear them thinking. “We’re going there again.”
And my wife and I laugh about it afterward. You get it, right? So often we’ve been the defensive ones, either avoiding the topic altogether, or passing off our beliefs with a quick, casual acknowledgment and then turning the talk in another direction, or (sigh) girding ourselves to explain, justify, account yet again for our non-mainstream practices and events and perspectives. The lesson for us continues to be this: if the opportunity opens up, find a way to talk about day-to-day benefits rather than beliefs, seek the common ground we all know from living on this planet, demonstrate it as a part of our lives, which they do care about. Then move on. Build trust, keep the lines of communication open, share your vulnerability and — as needed — shut up. You know: basic relationship stuff.
On our recent car trip, which I’ve touched on in the last several posts, we managed to reconnect with colleagues from over 25 years ago, a couple I worked with during my year of teaching in Changsha in the People’s Republic of China in the late 80s. We’d fallen out of touch: the first of their three children arrived, three of the four of us were back in school, several of us were patching together jobs out of already unconventional work histories, and both of our families moved at least a couple of times to accomplish these things.
We joked about our reunion later, over a dinner of home-made jiaozi. Making and eating them had become a lovely family tradition for them after China. The four of us and their youngest daughter, now 19, stood around their dining room table, filling and wrapping and talking, brushing the jiaozi wrappers with the cornstarch-water mix to seal them, then watching as the plump crescent dumplings steamed. Earlier we’d met for lunch in a restaurant, in case any of us had become raving loonies in the interim, and a convenient escape was needed. Eight hours later, we all knew we had nothing to fear. And the best demonstration, in the moment, of spirituality in all of our lives? Friendship, hospitality, a shared meal, simple pleasure in each other’s company. A touch of nostalgia didn’t hurt either.
/|\ /|\ /|\
Image of jiaozi steaming: me. Actual kitchen, steamers, stove, etc., courtesy of S. T.
Edited: 2 Aug. 2014