Feeling the happy in the birthday

I had a wonderful feeling of deep appreciation on the 13th when I was inundated with birthday wishes. I received Happy Birthday from old friends and acquaintances, friends of my children, nieces and nephews and Facebook friends I have never met from places I have never been.

Happy Birthday has always felt a bit Hallmark to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved a good meal and gifts but it was easy to pass it off as a trivial celebration. Not yesterday. I truly felt remembered. For a few seconds people thought about me and wanted me to have a good day. A special day. “I hope you have cake.” “I love your blog.” “I haven’t seen you for awhile, let’s get together.” “You are celebrating your birthday but the rest of us are celebrating the anniversary of you arriving in the world and making it a better, happier place for us.” (Thanks Chris.)

Perhaps the difference this birthday is that I let myself feel appreciated. My old self is loosening up on the weighty, the important, the significant… I am beginning to experience the simple, the immediate, the gentle, the human, the sweet, the pleasant, the lovable as being the truly exceptional. It’s a wonderful transition.

I never imagined I would have sixty-eight birthdays. Like most people, old was not something I wanted to imagine. But more specifically in my case I was raised to believe that I would never reach old age. I never thought I would reach an age to marry and have children let alone grandchildren.

My family’s religion taught that Jesus was coming back and he would put an end to this world. By 1980. By 2000. There was no way we’d reach 2025. Bible prophecies assured us that we were living in the time of the end. Most importantly the Jews were back in the land of Israel and we were to keep our eyes out for the time that “Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven…Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.”

I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old and those verses from the Gospel of Luke were my memory verses. My Sunday School teacher passed them out in the form of a little sticker. I put it in my “proof book”. We were given one sticker each Sunday. The verses were “proof” that we knew the Bible, that the Bible was God’s word, that we understood what it meant and that everyone else had it wrong. That particular proof was long and the other kids groaned. But I was good at remembering. I took the long proofs as a challenge. I have never forgotten that one.

Those verses described the state of the world for my entire life. They kept me on edge. But there was more. There were the prophecies about the six days, the one thousand years per day, the end of the six thousandth year was 2000 and after that it was the millennium. I don’t expect most of you will understand that one. It seemed pretty straight-forward at the time but it’s not one that stuck with me. I couldn’t believe that the world was only 6000 years old. There wasn’t a “proof”. But it didn’t matter. We were waiting nevertheless (I always loved the way that word flowed with three together).

And yet here I am. Sixty-eight years old. I left the religion thirty years ago. Beliefs about the Bible and the god of my family’s religion have long since dissolved. I am no longer right and everyone else is no longer wrong. Thankfully I no longer believe that I am exceptional, God’s chosen. I no longer believe that I will be saved along with a handful of others like in the story of Noah’s ark while the tiny group of us watch the rest of the world and humankind be destroyed. But the sense that this world is temporary has never left me.

These days there has been a very strange turn of events. I used to be the only “end of the worlder” that I knew (other than the “insiders” in our tiny wee church). I used to look out at “outsiders” in awe and be somewhat jealous at the way they had such confidence in the world. It was as if they believed it would go on forever. They made plans for their lives, their careers, their retirement. They had investments and dreams and ambitions.

But these days everyone has become an “end of the worlder”. Most people have finally realized that the world cannot indefinitely provide for humans’ endless capacity to consume. It will not go on forever. Not as we know it. Something very, very different is in our future.

This doesn’t seem to be a good place to end a blog. I don’t have a tidy wrap up for this. I need to write another blog to take up where this one signs off.

For now it is enough for me to say that the idea that the world as it has been would go on forever is where the problem really lies. It is a world-view problem and it was a delusion from the start. A delusion humans love but a delusion nevertheless. Giving up on a delusion hurts. I know because leaving the fantasies of the church of my early life was excruciating.

But once we come to terms with the fact that our existence as it is could never have been sustainable, once we realize that we were just plain wrong about life then we can begin to figure out how to live with a more temporary sense of being human. Then we can figure out how to treat the earth, its beings and other humans as the gifts they are rather than ours for the taking and the using.

Perhaps it’s this transition that allows me to truly feel the happy in the birthday. Letting go of my own importance and incorporating the good will and generosity of others for one moment, for one day is truly a wonderful thing.

Thank you thank you thank you all.

More from the zealot’s daughter

In my family the two things that were inevitable were not death and taxes. The first absolute certainty was the cataclysmic end of the world that would be heralded in by the literal return of Jesus Christ. The second was the establishment of a kingdom on earth led by Jesus himself and managed by God’s chosen people. You could be one of the chosen if, at the great judgment, you were deemed a sheep not a goat.

Thus, from the cradle, I was raised to be an end-of-the-worlder.

“We are living in the end times,” my father would say with the same sort of enthusiastic anticipation he had when he was announcing a family holiday or a visit from an old friend. The end times, meant that the apocalypse was imminent. To me it meant doom was just around the corner—that THE END would be the next important event in my life.

After THE END things got a bit fuzzy. While the kingdom was supposed to be a good time the story was complicated by 1000 years of cleansing the earth. This was to take place under the management of the sheep, which, if you’d gotten it all right during your lifetime, would include you. I remember being skeptical. When I looked around at the people in our religion, the ones aiming to be a sheep, the chosen, and thus lined up for the management positions in the kingdom, they didn’t look like a good crew for such a job. I knew from a very, very young age that being a sheep wasn’t a good quality for leadership. Don’t worry, I was told. God will work that out. I hoped so.

As a child my family read the Bible twice a day. We followed the Daily Bible Companion that set out a plan for reading the Old Testament once and New Testament twice each year. On top of that we were encouraged to do personal Bible study—to mark up our Bibles with explanatory notes prepared by church leaders. While not strictly forbidden, we were discouraged from reading anything other than the Bible or Bible related books that were written by men from the church. We had a few Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins books in the house although I don’t remember reading them. My oldest sister hid her romance novels under her bed. That was the extent of my worldly literary education.

The single most important message I got from my early life was that it would end. Soon. I remember wondering if I would ever reach double digits. Being 10 seemed out of reach given the imminency of THE END. I worried about whether I would become a teenager. Would Christ’s return give me time to get my driver’s license? Turning 20 was something I assumed would never happen. Each new stage in life came as a surprise and I was completely unprepared. Without realizing it I was a living example of Dolly Parton’s “One day at a time, sweet Jesus”.

Other than doing what the Bible instructed in preparation for the judgment where I would hopefully achieve sheep status what was the point in making plans? Education, career, travel; these things had little value. If Jesus held off his return giving me a chance to grow older I assumed I would get married and have children.

Bleak as this worldview sounds it provided certainty; God was in control and he had a plan. There was comfort in that idea. The trouble was that no matter how bizarre the plan sounded your job was to believe; it wasn’t your place to question God.

For many of my church peers the plan made sense. Daily Bible readings, followed by personal Bible study, augmented with three or four church meetings a week left them with no time to question anything except themselves. Would they please God in the end? Were they sheeply enough? It was a constant worry.

I wasn’t willing to question myself without questioning everything else as well. I  started with “Why would God make such a strange plan?” and then “How could such a plan succeed?” Given the evidence I could see of how badly God’s first creation was turning out for humans and the planet and I was unconvinced his next plan would be any more successful.

Looking inward I was pretty confident that God would not choose me to be a sheep. Sunday school teachers taught us early-on the difference between sheep and goats. Goats, they said, are naturally curious and independent. Goats love to escape the herd and head off solo. They will try and outwit and challenge the herder. We were told that these were not characteristics God was looking for in his chosen people.

Sheep, on the other hand, have a strong flocking instinct. They don’t like to be separated from the flock and are much easier to handle than goats. Sheep are less likely to challenge the shepherd and are more prone to follow and do as they are told.

I was pretty certain that I did not have the sheep-like qualities God wanted. Challenging God and questioning his plan was the only way I could make peace with what appeared to be my lot in life. But with THE END coming just around the corner and seeing myself much more of a goat than a sheep, challenging the Bible, the teachings and God himself didn’t result in peace, it became an obsession. This journey culminated during five or six years in my mid thirties. I became absorbed in an internal theological debate that spiraled into a personal existential crisis. Was there a God? If so, what did he want from human beings? If anything, what was I supposed to do about it?

As one strange interpretation of the Bible after the other fell away from my worldview I was left in what felt like the Biblical beginning…without form and void. The one thing that remained in place was the belief that human existence, as we know it on planet earth, was barreling towards some sort of end. I wish that wasn’t the belief that stuck with me. It’s no fun.

In my youth being an end-of-the-worlder was uncommon. Not anymore. Today most people either believe in some sort of THE END or are actively denying it. Most people are either eating, drinking and making merry, as it says in the Bible, or are trying to save us all before it is too late.

While I have recently been firmly in the “save it” camp I am revisiting the existential crisis of my 30’s. This time my journey is not in search of a relationship with God and my goal isn’t really to save myself or to save the world. My goal is the same as it has always been…to understand the human condition.

This time I’m exploring the relationship between humans and our fellow beings…animate and inanimate. This time, rather than examining the worldview held by my father where man has dominion over the entire creation to destroy or to save, I am drawing on my son’s perspective. His worldview comes from teachings from his indigenous family and holds that we are all relatives…insects, mountains, islands, fish, human beings…all of us…relatives. That perspective changes everything right down to the core of being itself.

I have no tidy conclusion to this post. It’s pause time. Time to be. More later.