“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power great than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”—Brene Brown, The Gifts Of Imperfection
I would like to take this time to apologize to a woman who served briefly as my therapist in 2008. Ms. X. You were right. I was wrong.
My mother had just moved back to Austin and was being placed into a nursing home due to her developing Alzheimer’s disease. She’d been deteriorating for a number of years and no longer could drive, no longer could be safe on her own. She was angry and overwhelming. I was angry and overwhelmed.
The therapist was a very nice woman and we got on well for a few sessions until she looked at me and told me that I was having a spiritual crisis. I didn’t react well to this news.
As a child I heard the Christ story, but round abouts the time I was 12 I really thought about it. I remember weeping in the car at the radical idea of another human being sacrificing himself in such a painful way (not only the crucifixion but the whole descent into hell) with love, for us, for any of us was astounding to me.
I’m sure the intensity had something to do being 12 and also having lost my father a few years prior, but even as a younger child I thought hard about giving and caring, been that kid who helped all the other crying kids, I argued with neighbors about who got to go to heaven or not, kind of outraged that any God worth his salt would set people up to fail based on something as silly (to me anyway) as what church or temple you went to.
As I aged into my teens, I merged this affection and affinity for Christianity with readings on Buddhism, reincarnation, witchcraft and crystal mysteries, all of which were supported in my very cool, new wave, small arts town, hippy approaching hipster Episcopalian youth group. I really dug the moon and would track her phases and sit and just watch the full moon for hours.
I fell out of touch with spirituality in my college years and my twenties, even as I moved more and more deeply into theater. I gained important perspectives on the politics of organized religion (and rejected most of it), the power mongering and media manipulation of the rising evangelical Right (and feared it), and then developed a big city agnostic attitude, along with my martinis, Doc Martans and poetry writing and performing or producing shows year after year.
So it went for a while. I did wind up in a MA program that focused on group dynamics, interpersonal communication, family systems therapy and diversity work. I did a lot of social justice things. I broached my own personal therapeutic issues with some near psychic counselors (and did a huge amount of grief work about my father). But I pushed away religion.
After we moved to Austin, we had children. I think we felt a pull to deepen our health and connection to community then, and we explored a few paths that didn’t fit. I was resistant for a number of reasons, the majority of which had to do with the organized part.
I resisted The Rules. Weirdly, I’m not really a rule breaker by nature. I don’t like getting “in trouble.” But I don’t enjoy hearing edicts from on high voiced by a mortal claiming they know that God has rules about why someone should or shouldn’t be able to marry, or what food I should or shouldn’t eat or what I should do with my uterus. I felt that modern Christianity was marketing ploy, a consumer item, responsible for all kinds of bad public policy and used as a bludgeon to hurt people.
And also? I didn’t have an image of myself as “religious.” It felt too pat, too literal and naive. Too blindly obedient, lacking in critical thinking, and without metaphor and poetry and context of cultural change. Too…something that didn’t belong to me or that I didn’t belong to.
Plus, everything was fine, with my lovely kids, and lovely family, and exciting and adventurous friends, and job that had to do with giving and connecting and the social justice volunteering and the exploration of improvisation long form narrative, a kind of magic of its own.
Until my mother became ill.
I was unmoored. Angry. Resistant. Afraid of her. Of the work I didn’t do earlier with her which had to do with my father and his death and work to do there too. There is an irony that even as she became more and more ill, I was doing more and more theater, more and more social justice, more and more community building.
So when I went to visit this therapist, what I thought I was looking for were practical and pragmatic tools to help get through the hard patch of where my mother was in her illness. My mother was in the middle, and at the worst stage, waking up in a fog, agitated and violent at times, angry and extremely afraid. And blaming me for all of it, all while I tried to manage a job, young children and a blooming theatrical life.
At this point in therapy, when I’d laid it all out, what was going on, my various family of origin dynamics, she looked at me and told me I was in a spiritual crisis.
I told her I wasn’t.
She did the same thing the next week and we talked about her Christianity and I got even more agitated. I reacted strongly to the idea of God in anything having to do with me, my mother, her disease, you name it. I said, “Let’s move away from this topic.”
Two sessions later, she brought it up again. I quit with a few choice words. I stewed and sputtered for weeks about it.
Thing is? She was right. I don’t think she managed her own process all that well and I think she had a particular frame she was holding on to. I mean, she could have used the word “existential” or “mid life” or something to keep me coming back. But I think she was right.
Using the definition above? The one by the extremely helpful Brene Brown? I’m an extremely spiritually focused person, but I’ve been resisting that for about 15 years. Maybe 20.
I’ve resisted, pushed away, denied, fought, been obstinate, justified my agnosticism based on my progressive politics, and occasionally been really non-compassionate towards believers. All while acting in ways that I can recognize as highly spiritual-theater, social justice, community building.
This year that fighting has stopped.
I had an extremely difficult spring, even though on the surface things looked fine. I had a very bad bout with depression. I wasn’t taking good care of myself. Things were ending in a few places theatrically even as others were opening up more and more. I suffered some physical exhaustion this summer and my hormonal chemistry was out of whack. On top of that, I was able to see what my mission was both at work and on stage and in life and while I was thrilled to have that come into clarity, I was daunted by the responsibility of it. Of it’s weight.
And I sat with a friend, on the floor of a building at UT, and we talked about depression. And she looked into my eyes and shared with me. And I talked with another friend at a little lake near my house. And she looked into my eyes and she shared with me too. A change started.
I started reaching out for spiritual sources, like the podcasts I’ve mentioned here On Being, or the documentaries I’ve been listing. Not about “religion” but about belief. Doubt. Ethics. Being human in human systems and trying to connect and heal. Reading people like Brene Brown, who went through her own “
breakdown spiritual awakening” as she called it.
I’ve had amazing serendipitous connections with some spiritual and therapeutic guides from a variety of backgrounds, including our cat who I’ve decided is my familiar. Or maybe she decided I was her person. Either way.
I’ve had some near ninja magic moments recently, some profound insights, little epiphanies and probably unnoticeable to passers by, but for me? A big deal.
So yeah, perhaps you, Ms. X, were right and I was having a spiritual crisis. And I went ahead and stayed in the desert a long time, cause I don’t like being told about my business and sometimes I need that realization to sidle up to me and just sit next to me for a time before I can look it in the face. Which always turns out to be looking back at your own face, yes? You, just waiting for that openness for integration and authenticity and self trust and compassion. You, waiting for you.
So that’s been happening this year.
I still don’t like organized religion. I still think that human systems are only as healthy as the humans in them, and that religious systems are probably prone to the most toxicity because so many of us want answers and because so many of us seek those answers in others and in some leaders who promise us they know, even with good intent (and sometimes with bad).
And that can be a very dangerous combination, so I’m wary.
I can’t even say that I believe in “God,” at least a God that would create weird puzzles for people to figure out in order to find It. I still think that’s silly and outrageous as hell.
I do believe in compassion and courage and connection between all living things, that the metaphysical may be just a physical we haven’t understood yet, that magic is in the every day, and that theater is a way of embodying energy that is transformative. I believe in the power of listening to each other and being present and witnessing human moments, in staying connected even if we falter and break away.
I believe we may be all we have and so why not hold hands and help each other every step of the way.
I believe, is the thing. And I’m really happy about looking myself in the face and admitting it and actually, as they say, start doing the work.
I’ll leave you with some REM, a song that was very important to me in college and has stayed with me ever since.
“Trust in your calling, make sure your calling’s true
Think of others, the others think of you”