“Contact with another human. Herb Asher shrank involuntarily. Oh Christ, he thought. He trembled. No, he thought. Please no.” – Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion
“You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone.” –A Course of Love
It’s true: there are a lot of people in the world. And like Herb Asher, I’ve had a hard time with that. I have felt the tightness in my stomach when sitting in a group, worried that I’m not saying enough or that I’ll say the wrong thing, worried that no one likes me as much as they’re pretending to like me, worried that they may have liked me at first but will like me less and less the more they talk to me.
I have skulked awkwardly around the edges of clusters of people talking, looking for a space to insert myself. I have quietly given up and left, going home to nurture my embarrassment into defiance. I am not like them, and I don’t need them anyway. I don’t need that person, I have scoffed, or that person. It’s the superiority complex of the shy, a defense mechanism against hating yourself.
I don’t want to be Herb Asher, alone in a pod on an alien planet, thinking I’m happy as long as I can be alone and fantasize about this or that celebrity. Instead, I want to learn to be alone with other people, alone in a way that means being centered and calm, unshaken by anxiety about what anyone thinks.
I want to forgive God. I want to be the social creature I was made to be. Plus, I want to do what I’m told, whether it’s to forgive God or be nice to others. I want to be good. I (“You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver says. But what does she know of life’s pressures, a lone poet and her wild geese?)
Geese are never alone. I want to be a goose, to travel with others in lovely symmetry without having to think about it too much. Just be a goose doing my goose thing with other geese.
“Therefore, ‘come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’” –2 Corinthians 6:17
There’s something here beyond social anxiety, something to do with Bible verses like the one above, something instilled in me about the nature of difference and oneness. What’s going on here? What is the real fear?
Possibility 1: Fear of touching everyone inappropriately.
What if I relax so much that I lose my sense of self and lean into someone? Worse, what if I snuggle in close? I want to touch and be touched, and I guard myself against both, afraid it will go too far. It’s like the fear of crying because you might not be able to stop.
What’s too far? Sex, I suppose. In moments of panicky self-analysis I’ve wondered if I’m the kind of person who has to have sex with people to feel comfortable around them. But on a less weird and more practical level, I’m afraid I’ll misread cues and make everyone uncomfortable. Or maybe I’m afraid that if I lean into someone too long, I won’t know how to return to myself. So don’t go losing yourself with everyone, I tell myself. Pick one person. But what if that’s a catch 22? What if my fear of intimacy with the world keeps me from intimacy with the one person I’ve picked?
Last weekend, I attended my boyfriend’s uncle’s funeral. One of the family members sat next to me, crying. I wanted to express my sympathy with more than a look or a sad smile. I wanted to comfort her with affection. The women in the pew in front of me were patting each other’s knees. Could I reach this person’s knee without sliding forward in the pew? Would my touch be an intrusion on her private moment? I quickly reached out and rubbed my hand up and down her leg. She jerked a little, probably startled, and it took some quick thinking on my part to not snatch my hand away in embarrassment. Instead, I switched to her shoulder, but the damage was done. My ego grasped onto that leg rub and tortured me with it the rest of the day. That’s something a lover would do! Why rub? Why not just pat? Why such long strokes? Why are you allowed in public?
All of this is to say that I think my deepest nature is to connect and to comfort, and I’m afraid that if I let that part of myself free, I’ll be trespassing boundaries right and left and lose myself in the process.
Possibility 2: Fear of being like everyone else.
The fear of touching, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of looking stupid—these are but shadows of another fear: if I join the world, nothing will distinguish me or make me unique or special or better.
As a kindergartner, I learned that being separate—being preternaturally obedient, in my case—won me admiration from my teacher. Since (and even before) then, I’ve (mostly subconsciously) sought distance from the crowd of my peers. Whether by getting good grades, following rules, adopting a restricted diet, or simply being my genetically thin self, I have separated myself from the pack.
Self-help books and Myers-Briggs would label me an introvert. It’s easy to buy into this label and imagine myself deserving of special understanding. But labels are part of the separation that we imagine we must maintain in order to survive this world. Introverts can write as many books as they want, trying to get people to understand them, but in the end, that just creates further separation: us v. them.
If I stop separating myself, if I stop trying to be different or better, then what am I? And who do I think is going to love me more for my separation? God? That’s what I used to think, at least. Trying to be good separates you from the majority who don’t try so hard. And shouldn’t my sacrifice, my noble struggle for goodness, warrant special love, whether from God or people? If I give up that struggle, then what?
Possibility 3: Fear I’ll get stuck in illusion.
If I give up my struggle toward enlightenment so that I can ‘hang’ like a normal person, I might get stuck in the illusion instead of being able to transcend it. I’ll get caught up in other people’s problems, complaints, gossip, negativity. And because I still want to connect with people despite my competing desire to be different and better, I sometimes default to complaining a lot to try to make myself seem ‘down-to-earth,’ to make myself seem real. Which brings up my ongoing complaint: why all of this sitting and talking anyway? Why can’t we just play a game instead? Dutch Blitz, for example, is vonderful goot fun, and I can never get anyone to play it with me.
My new trick for handling social situations, adapted from this book by my friend Peter Santos:
Before a social engagement, protect yourself energetically. After a brief meditation to calm and center yourself, imagine your aura pulling in close to you and then imagine a circle of white light surrounding it. In this egg of light, you are perfectly safe. In this egg, you can relax and interact with people without fear. In this egg, you can look past people’s ego-driven behavior to their true nature. You can see that you are One with everyone.
Does it work? Sometimes. When it doesn’t, when I do something awkward like rub a crying person’s leg, I tell myself, “let it be.” I tell myself to stop punishing myself for my awkwardness. Instead, just allow it. Accept it. Trust that I will be forgiven.
And finally, here’s the full paragraph from which the beginning quote is taken. I love it for how it knocks the wind out of me.
“You must forgive reality for being what it is. Reality, the truly real, is relationship. You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone. You must forgive God for creating a shared reality before you can understand it is the only one you would want to have. You have to forgive this reality for being different than you always imagined it to be. You have to forgive yourself for not being able to make it your own, because you have realized the impossibility of doing so. You have to forgive yourself for being what you are, a being who exists only in relationship. You have to forgive all others for being as you are. They too cannot be separate, no matter how hard they try. Forgive them. Forgive yourself. Forgive God. Then you will be ready to begin learning just how different it really is to live in the reality of relationship.” –A Course of Love
I’m knocking at Aamilah’s door, here to meet her and begin tutoring her in conversational English. Aamilah is Saudi Arabian, and as I stand here outside her door, listening to her move about inside as the minutes pass, I wonder if not answering the door right away is some kind of Saudi cultural thing and whether I should keep knocking or text her or just wait.
Here’s a cultural thing: cake, dates, almonds, rice snacks—all laid out on her coffee table. It’s a hospitality I’ve encountered before, when I lived in the Philippines and when I visited my Italian college friend’s home. It’s lavish, and it worries me. How can I ever deserve all of this or even adequately appreciate it? Should I have brought something to contribute?
Aamilah (not her real name) is young and pretty, with long dark hair and lovely caramel skin. We smile at each other and spill out a jumbled mix of introductory words and syllables. We’re nervous. She fills our tiny teacups with what looks like hot miso broth, cloudy and a light yellowish color. “It’s Arabic coffee,” she says. “Have you had it?” I haven’t. I can’t figure out what it tastes like.
“Is it regular coffee? I mean, from coffee beans? Caffeine?” I adjust my questions, seeing her confusion. She doesn’t know the word ‘caffeine,’ and it takes our next four meetings of halting conversation and Google searches for me to figure out what exactly it is: real coffee but with the addition of saffron and/or cardamom. That’s what it tastes like, I realize: cloudy saffron water.
“We to like, uh, to eat the dates? With the coffee? It is, uh, tradition?” she explains, indicating the dates. These are not the usual Deglet Noor dates of East Coast grocery stores, tough and sugary. These dates are small, glossy, and so soft that they melt into honey on my tongue.
Aamilah moved here with her husband and daughter while her husband attends school, and they’ll return to Saudi Arabia to live after he graduates. I have no problem understanding her English, but she stumbles often on vocabulary and mixes up syntax. She often catches herself switching genders, calling her daughter “he” and her husband “she.” I’ve taught and tutored writing for many years, but this is my first time tutoring conversation, and I’m not sure whether I should keep correcting her or just talk with her, asking questions and supplying and defining new words as necessary. I decide on the latter. The point is communication, and I want us to enjoy ourselves.
And so we talk. Our conversations drift from our families to Saudi Arabian weather, landscape, and culture, including dating and marriage, good cities for shopping (Riyadh and Jeddah), and a brief and, on my part, ill-advised foray into the criminal justice system (let’s just say that she had never heard of public beheadings). At our second meeting, we come to the topic of religion, and religion is where we remain, as I have all kinds of questions about Muslim practices, holidays, beliefs, and sects, and she has all kinds of questions about “Trees-chi-ans,” including the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
“So you have three gods?” she asks, when I try to explain the Trinity.
“Well, no, it’s like three parts of God.” I’m trying to explain the belief that Jesus is God. She looks highly skeptical. “Like a rope,” I say. “You know how you can take apart a rope, that it has separate threads? But it’s all one rope?” I feel especially pleased with this metaphor, and she nods.
“Okay, okay,” she says, but I can tell she isn’t convinced. She has heard of Jesus, “Isa” as she calls him, but she believes he was a good prophet who will follow Muhammad when they both return to earth during the end times. “Islam, One God,” she says, holding up her finger. “One.” I try to explain that Christians also believe in one God, that Jesus is part of God, and, when she asks why we have two Bibles, I try to explain the connection between the Old and New Testaments. I explain the practice of animal sacrifice for sins in the Old Testament and how Jesus’s death in the New Testament represented the ultimate sacrifice that covered all sins past, present, and future, making possible our direct connection to God without mediation by temples and priests.
“Isa came back to life?” she asks.
“That is what Christians believe,” I explain. “Because he was God…so he could bring his physical body back to life.”
I feel both amused and chagrined to be sitting here explaining the Gospel like I was taught to do in Sunday School. Other than a brief spurt of evangelical zeal when I was 8 and “witnessed” to a friend in school, I never “shared the good news” with anyone, at first due to shyness and later to a growing seed of rebellion against something I didn’t know how to define. Now, so many years later, I face a challenge my Sunday School teachers would envy—to share the Gospel with a Muslim. I worry a little that I might accidentally convert her. And if I did, what would her husband do?
I admit to an irrational fear of her husband, based on nothing except the knowledge that he is a practicing Muslim and a man. “How is she doing?” he asks me at the end of our session. “Should I reward her? Has she done well?” He’s teasing, and I laugh politely, but when I say, “Yes, she’s doing great, wonderful!” I say it with a tiny lurking fear that if I say anything else he might beat her. I know better. I can blame my reaction on the media coverage of Muslim countries and on my fear of male religious authority in my own tradition. But the fear feels deeper than culture and religion, older than even this lifetime. Wherever it came from, I brought it to this world with me.
Anyway, I could never convert Aamilah even if I wanted to. She loves her faith. She shows me pictures of Mecca during Ramadan. She explains the daily prayers and her study of the Qur’an. She shakes her head dismissively when I ask about the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. If she knew the word “apostate” she would use it to describe the Shi’a. The Shi’a are misguided. They have left the true faith.
“The Qur’an talks about Isa and Mary,” Aamilah says, and shows me the passage in its beautiful Arabic script. This comes after I have tried to explain the Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life versus the Protestant belief that Mary married Joseph after Jesus was born and had several more children with him. “Yosef?” she says, confused. She has never heard of him. “Virgin?” she asks, the word clearly foreign, clunky in her mouth. “You know,” I say, “uh…did not have sex yet.” I say the word “sex” as if it is clearly foreign, afraid that maybe it will offend her. “What?” she asks, and so I repeat myself several times until she says, “Oh, yes! She was made to have pregnant by God! Yes, the Qur’an says this.”
An angel had to tell Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, I continue. Otherwise, he would have divorced her. Aamilah interrupts me. “In-jeel?” she asks. “Yes, angel,” I say. I try to explain that angels are messengers of God. “Ah!” she says. “Messengers of God! Yes, I know this. The Qur’an—in-jeel? The Bible—in-jeel?” What a lovely idea, I think, books as angels. But when I try to explain the difference between message and messenger, the conversation breaks down. Allah doesn’t have angels, apparently. How do you describe an angel—a ‘being of Light’? What does that mean?
Aamilah begins to press. My explanations of Christianity have been tempered with “Christians believe.” She wants to know what I believe. But how can I begin to explain my nuanced, New-Age, Buddhist version of Christianity? She has never heard of Buddhism. “Bood…boodism?” she tries out the word. I’m at a loss. “We can talk about that next time,” I say.
But the next time, she has written on her iPhone a history of the prophet Muhammad; I hunch over the screen with her, correcting her grammar and learning that Islam most certainly has an angel tradition. The angel Jibreel opened baby Muhammad's chest and took the black bits from his heart. But Aamilah pronounces angel “angle,” while Injil is the Arabic word for Gospel, the message—thus the confusion of the week before. The “angle Jibreel” visited Muhammad again, when the boy had grown, to give him the Qur'an, the inspired words of Allah. I imagine Jibreel as a corner, surrounded by a host of angels bent acute, obtuse, perpendicular.
In this moment, Aamilah is herself Injil, a holy message, her excitement about her religion and her love for her Prophet and his wife Khadija shining in her eyes.
I love the way I believe in, too, but working with Aamilah has made me even more aware of how strange these beliefs are, ungrounded in tradition or history. Christians would look at my version of Christianity as Aamilah sees the Shi’a Muslims, a dangerous misinterpretation of the one true religion. How can my scrap-heap of beliefs ever compare to her faith, so grounded in community that entire cities grow silent to hear the call to prayer sung from the spires of the mosque? How can I explain a belief system based on love?
“Do you feel, uh…love for Allah?”
“Oh, yes!” she nods. “I love Allah!”
“And do you feel love from him, that he loves you?”
“Oh, yes!” she says. “He loves us if we pray and are good Muslims.”
I don’t ask “What if you’re not good?” I will not press. This woman seems content, happy, grounded. She will return to her country this summer and travel to Mecca with her family for Ramadan. She speaks of this month of fasting, prayer, and devotion with longing. God is great, the call to prayer begins. Allahu Akbar. God is great, God is great, God is great, God is great. They break the fast each night of Ramadan with dates, she tells me. I eat another date. This date is great, I think. Praise God.
 Here’s what happened. At a lull in the dialogue, she asked if I had any questions about Saudi Arabia, and the first and only thing I could think of was that a man I dated for awhile had lived in Saudi Arabia and seen public beheadings. He described the experience to me, clearly still shaken by it. I shouldn’t have asked Aamilah about it, but it did lead to some new vocabulary for her as I tried to explain the prison and execution system here in the U.S. I drew a little courtroom, with stick-figures of judge, lawyers, and jury. I drew a stick man in a prison. I spelled out the words ‘criminal’ and ‘death penalty’ and ‘prosecute’ and ‘represent.’ I asked if she ever watched “Law & Order.” She hadn’t.
Growing up in a conservative, evangelical Protestant scene, I was taught to pray “not my will, but Thine.” No way, I thought. What’s the point of prayer if you’re going to let God do what he wants to anyway? Asking for God’s Will also terrified me; as far as I could tell, God’s Will demanded suffering. God’s Will wanted to destroy all the “chaff” of my own desires and teach me humility. God’s Will was a nasty little soldier running around trying to ruin everyone’s lives for their own good.
Based on the books I read and people I knew, I was afraid that God’s Will for my life would involve one or more of the following:
· To eat the pus of lepers (to teach me that serving others is even more rewarding than not eating pus)
· To be a missionary killed by the natives (to teach me, posthumously I guess, the joy of giving my life so that others might be saved—because once natives kill you, they’ll surely repent and read the Bibles you gave them)
· To be tortured for my beliefs (to teach me that I can get through anything if I sing hymns)
· To hit my head when diving & become a quadriplegic (to teach me that I don’t need arms and legs to do God’s Will; I can learn to draw beautiful pictures with my teeth, for example)
· To accidentally fall in love with an old, fat man (to teach me that appearance isn’t important)
· To never marry or have a family (to teach me that my happiness comes from loving God, not from the fulfillment of my most cherished lifelong dream)
· To have a severely handicapped baby (to teach me humility)
· To die (to teach me that this world is nothing and that God is everything)
Clearly, the God of my childhood was worth running from. And His Will? Will was his vengeance, his hit-man, his thug.
A friend told me recently, “You’re still thinking about God as being Out There. But God’s in you, God is you.”
A book I’m reading says to think of God as “an electric current, endowed with supreme intelligence. This ‘electric current’ is there, in you, around you, outside of yourself.”
Sounds great, right? If God is part of me, what’s to fear? God’s Will is, essentially, My Will. But the fear quickly returns. In this version of spirituality, it’s not God who sabotages you: it’s your fear-energy. Your unconscious fears disrupt the “God-flow” and manifest stuff you don’t want. Can’t have a baby? Your unconscious fears of having children are shutting down your uterus. Can’t meet a loving partner? Your unconscious belief systems about partnership are working against you. Blinded by a chemical spill at age 8? You contracted for this experience before you were born, hoping, perhaps, for heightened senses and wicked martial arts skills.
In other words, your problems are your fault; you can work to expose and correct these unconscious influences, but in the end, your crappy circumstances are of your own making.
So that kind of sucks. It’s like saying, “That dog will attack you if you show any fear.” If you can’t calm your fear, it’s your own fault if that dog bites off half of your face.
The Christ Within talks about using the God-flow in us to transform any of our life circumstances or situations into a “state of grace,” in which the holiness in us blesses that situation and we are led, through gentle, intuitive impressions, to bring about that situation’s highest good.
If we surrender a particular situation to the God within us, promising to let go of our sense of limitation, our false perceptions, and the will of our personality, promising to listen for and follow our feeling nature, we will thus enter a state of grace and invite into our lives our highest good. Well, okay, I thought. Maybe I can do that.
Maybe God’s Will is the deepest and purest part of myself, and maybe this Will’s urges are not in service of self-sacrifice but of self-actualization and self-expression and a surrender of all anxiety about what other people think.
Maybe God’s Will is a flowering, a full manifestation of my particular personality in this particular lifetime. Or maybe God’s Will is simply to experience—to be here in this world of illusion and to embrace it lightly, gracefully.
In the end, bad stuff doesn’t come from God. It comes from fear. But instead of getting stuck in the fear of what my unconscious (or the collective unconscious!) will manifest, I can surrender it all to my highest good and focus instead on what I can access: the conscious fears. For example, my anxiety often compromises my well-being: I avoid painful conversations, I try not to ‘bother’ people with my problems, I say yes when I’d rather say no. The process of changing this default, of living in a state of grace rather than a state of tension, can feel difficult and frightening. After all, “God’s Will” might be that I actually ‘speak my truth’ or, worse, say no. But I can trust the outcome if I trust that God’s Will is part of me, that it manifests only freedom and wishes for me only joy.
 St. Francis of Assisi
 Elisabeth Elliot’s husband
 Countless martyrs I read and watched movies about as a child.
 Joni Eareckson Tada
 Couples who said things like, “I wasn’t attracted to him at all, but then I got to know him.” It would be so God, I thought, to trick me into falling in love with a man who grossed me out. Another church message: the more attractive person of a couple is holier than the rest of us who care about looks.
 A few single church women I knew and tried my hardest to avoid, afraid they’d rub off on me.
 I would like to apologize for this fear to the parents of disabled children. I would also like to believe that I would whole-heartedly love and take pride in any child who came into my life.
 We shouldn’t talk about God because He’s everywhere, my 3rd grade classmate said, pointing at her vagina. Even here.
 The Pathwork of Self-Transformation, by Eva Pierrakos
 A CD from the Sacred Garden Fellowship
 This is a very mild example of the effects of fear. Maybe another post will delve into the whole, “why do bad things happen?” debate.