Faith, Magic, & Meaning
Stories In This Illegible Life
Once I was old enough to navigate the Metro from the edge of D.C. proper where I grew up down to the National Mall one of my jobs was to accompany my grandma to the Smithsonian museums every time she visited so she could bask in the art.
I don't know how much my grandma actually knew about the artists themselves, but she could spin a story like nobody's business. She would spin such seemingly authoritative stories about what the art meant and what the artist was going for that people would begin to trail along behind her assuming she was a docent. I found this alternately thrilling and deeply embarrassing.
Once I had to get her out of the museum before she got herself in serious trouble because she kept stepping WAY too close to an abstract painting, tracing shapes that she saw in it with her carefully painted pinkie fingernail, telling everyone that would listen stories about the bunnies and faces and whatever else that clearly were being depicted, and practically sending the security guards into apoplectic fits. They threatened to arrest her if she didn't step away from the art- my little Southern grandma.
But it must be said that my grandma was also a woman of deep faith. She got up every morning at dawn and "said her prayers" for at least an hour, which involved an entire conversation with God about all the people and things that she needed Him to help her with by holding them in His hand. Her relationship with God was deeply personal and imaginative in the best way, and I envy that, honestly. My relationship with God feels direct and personal, but my conception of the Divine is too universal for conversation. I could use, at times, the vibrancy of my grandmother's imagination— both in the way I interact with the wider world, and the way that I interact with God. It was deeply comforting to her, and I struggle to find a sense of comfort as I move through my days.
When my children were small, and then less small, they clung to a firm belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and all the other magical figures of childhood. I was deeply protective of their belief, and went to great lengths to maintain the illusion— never even wrapping presents until after they went to bed on Christmas Eve, shaking sleigh bells under their bedroom window, hiding plastic eggs in the dark, and staying up way too late to ensure they were deeply enough asleep to sneak Sacajawea dollars (which are very shiny. Fairies like shiny things.) under their pillows. This all went on long past the point when other parents had given up, assuming they ever tried to feed the stories in the first place.
There was a part of me that was trying to rewrite my own history, for sure. My brother gleefully burst my Santa Claus bubble when I was still in kindergarten, and I was by then already too aware of how very scary and bleak the real world can be. So, I wasn’t actually surprised to find out Santa Claus was all a lie. Sad, but not surprised.
Still, I never let go of my love for magic and fantasy, even though I knew they weren’t “real”. Reading about trips through the wardrobe, benevolent witches who helped you save your little brother from the Nothing, and the necessity for a king to inhabit the bodies of all the creatures of the land he would someday rule, fueled my sense of hope.
I fed my children’s imaginations in order to bolster their capacity for hope, to feed their faith that more and better is possible. I knew there would be many more years, on balance, when life would demand of them a bleak rationality, when pain and unfairness would dominate their sight. I figured it was my job for as long as I could pull it off not to protect their innocence, per se, but to feed their ability to tell a larger, more meaningful story than their rational minds could conceive of.
I have been thinking a lot in recent weeks about the stories we tell ourselves and the mythologies we put our faith in. The only difference between “religion” and “mythology” is that what we call religion has current believers and what we call “mythology” were faith stories coined and believed in fervently by our long dead ancestors. Both are simply stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and attempt to find some meaning in our experience of being human.
Despite being a person of faith, I hold my faith lightly. I don’t believe the surface details of worship or ideology put forth by my particular religious community represent some kind of Ultimate Truth above all others. I also recoil from any belief system that purports its adherents are chosen people, or requires literal interpretations of any sacred text. There is so little humility in any of that.
I follow the tenets of my faith, albeit imperfectly and often with some juvenile crankiness, because it teaches me to seek that of God even in people that I disagree with and despise. Moving through the world with this belief makes my life better— more complicated, perhaps, but also more persistently hopeful and connected. It feels true, but even when it doesn’t I remember that when I have acted as if it wasn’t true I have felt shittier overall— more bleak and disconnected. So, I choose to “have faith”, to utilize my imagination to “believe” a story about what sits at the heart of people, because, to be perfectly honest, I prefer not to feel shittier.
This morning I received the latest edition of Haley Nahman’s Substack newsletter, Maybe Baby, entitled #67: Hello from down here. In it, she writes:
I’m trying to let go of the idea that I have to figure everything out right now. By that I mean I’m telling myself to stop trying to figure everything out right now. I’ve been around long enough to clock when I’m going through something that will only make sense in hindsight, but I’m always surprised by how much grace it requires to not panic when I’m in the thick of it.
Wow, can I relate to that right now.
She points to this idea, put forward by author Venkatesh Rao that “humans crave legibility—that is, order and comprehension—and in the process of trying to make things endlessly legible, often set themselves up for failure.” Rao is particularly concerned with how social systems set up to contain human disorder seem to inevitably fail. Nahman, in contrast, is more concerned with the systems that we set up on an individual level to hold chaos at bay:
I’ve been mulling over where this fail pattern shows up for us as individuals who seek out order as a means to improve ourselves and our lives. Game plans, bullet journals, healthy habits, 10-step programs, pedometers, morning routines, diets, perfectly blocked-out calendars. It’s not that these tools never work; it’s that their primary role is to ease our discomfort with the unavoidable entropy of existence, rather than address the entropy itself.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Nahman. I do think that much of the “self-improvement” we engage in is based on stories designed to mask our discomfort over all the things about ourselves and the world we don’t understand and can’t control. But I also think there is something to be said for stories and systems that provide us with a sense of meaning, significance, and purpose, even when they seem irrational in the face of this illegible, chaotic life.
One is essentially moving deck chairs around on the Titanic, assuming that the mind can conquer the body. The other is wresting hope out of the hands of despair by placing our bodies and our lives in service to imagination, connection, and transcendence.
I’ll tell you another story about me and my grandma. One summer my brother and I both got sent to her house in Memphis for a few weeks. Torturing me was my brother’s favorite pastime, but he was smart enough to do it when grandma wasn’t looking, or so I thought.
One day he came to me and said he wanted to make up for all the times he’d been mean by letting me “get him back.” He told me I could slather his entire torso in the shaving cream that my grandma used to shave her legs and he wouldn’t protest or stop me. He seemed to be both volunteering for humiliation and trying to make amends. At least, that’s what my very gullible heart told me. I wanted so very desperately to believe we could be anything but constant enemies, that he actually gave a shit about my feelings.
I used up nearly the whole can of shaving cream slathering him, at which point he promptly ran out of the bathroom and “told” on me to grandma. The depth of my sense of betrayal was epic and I began to sob uncontrollably, perched on the edge of the bathtub.
My grandma came in, sat on the closed toilet and pulled me onto her lap. Looking me straight in the eye she exclaimed, “Asha, stop crying. You’re being a jackass! You know your brother is always up to no good. Why would you ever listen to him?”
We get to choose our stories. Sometimes the stories we choose to believe in, whether they are stories about ourselves, relationships, other people, or the world, help us feel more hopeful, connected, and purposeful. Sometimes they make us feel more isolated and bleak. And sometimes they just make us a jackass.
Discerning which is which is a large part of our integrity work. Certainly it’s a large part of mine.
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