Another School of Thought

“You know, John, there’s another school of thought.”

I always loved that phrase, “another school of thought.” It seems less hostile, less likely to deteriorate into a conflict-driven debate. Especially, if the sentence comes from a close friend. It is even more poignant when the discussion is about religion.

I grew up in a very Catholic environment. In fact, my entire education was in Catholic schools—elementary, high school, and college. Unlike some of my friends, the experience, in general, I found rewarding and nurturing. I truly admired the clergy-in-the-trenches who taught me what it meant to live in the world of “service.” It has made a marked difference in my life.

Saying all that, however, does not take away from the fact that other Catholic values seeped into the cracks of my psyche before I began to discover how damaging they really were.

I was taught, at an early age, for example, that I could do nothing very substantial, on my own, without God’s help, that I had to “depend” on a divine exterior force to sustain me on a daily basis. That dependence (or codependence) was embodied in two other related schools of thought: the “Lord-I-am-not-worthy” school and the belief that only through God’s “grace” could I survive.

Suffice it to say, that the “Lord-I-am-not-worthy” model preached to me daily in elementary school blended in perfectly with the notion of “grace,” which came from a Greek word meaning “gift,” but a gift to an unworthy recipient.

I was taught that I could only receive grace if I went to Mass and received Holy Communion or did a good deed. Mind you, I had to take somebody else’s word that, if I did the right things (a novena, a rosary, mass and communion, a visit to a shrine, confession), I would receive grace. And then grace was supposed to “protect me”; it was the shield that would guard me against sin, or the “near-occasion” of sin (I’m not making this up).

I also remember very vividly, as a child, believing that my moral self had to be jump-started with a heavy dose of grace—communion every day—in order to move myself out of the spiritual lethargy that I had inherited as a child of Adam and Eve. Grace, I was told, would give me the spiritual energy to not only conquer the devil but to do more good works (doing “good works” had a strange incremental power: if I did good works, I would get more grace and that very grace would enable me to do more good works—a kind of cyclical warranty process).

Again, as a naive Catholic elementary-school kid, I was daily barraged with the philosophy that only a divinity had the power to morph me into a walking child of God and that, without God’s grace, I would remain an unworthy, always-inclined-to-sin little street urchin.

That was one side of the gate of what I was taught.

On the other side, I was told to go out in the world and use my talents to influence, to show the rest of society that Catholics have what it takes to be leaders—the old John Fitzgerald Kennedy school that Mormons and WASPs historically have done so well at.

That more individualist school taught me to use my own strategies and abilities to make a mark on the world. After all, since every talent I had was a “gift-from-God,” as I was taught, I already had a divinity’s Good-Housekeeping seal of approval. I was ready to go. I could now go out in the world and do my Church “proud.”

Over time, I left the theology and institution of the Roman Catholic Church. I became a kind of free-floating self-knowledge pursuer, a nomadic radical on a path to “find” himself, as the saying goes.

In my early adulthood, up to my middle forties, I did find out that I could drink. And drink I did, with a vengeance—on a good day, on a bad day, on the week-ends, during the week, after jogging, before dinner, after dinner, but “never in the morning” (I laugh now about “morning,” having never thought the bartender’s “last call,” in my town, was usually at three in the morning).

After having my fill of what I thought was good old fashioned hard drinking, I bottomed out and ended up in a de-tox center. From that day, over twenty-six years ago, I haven’t gone back to the booze.

And today? Well, I continue to be in a multi-layered program, a program that, for some, relies heavily on a belief in a “higher-power.” Although many say that “higher power” can mean anything you want it to mean, the program’s literature consistently reinforces a very orthodox sky-god tradition in its constant references to “God” “creation,” and “spirit of the universe.”

Such references come out of the same traditional God-gives-grace-to-make-us-strong school. And it is a school, over time, I gradually weaned myself from on my own spiritual journey.

Although I remain nurtured by the faiths of many of my friends, I continue to adhere to the “other school” of thought—the divinity-within school, if you will—that believes we are all “worthy” human beings, that our worthiness comes from our very existence, that if we are “ready” to open ourselves to the world, then we will experience any of a number of psychic changes.

The key word here is “ready.” And, if we are on a self-knowledge journey, if we consciously choose to surrender to a recovery program, then we develop “tools” to be ready to open ourselves to ourselves and to others.

And those tools can be drawn from a number of sources. Here are some of mine:

—other people
—silence (meditation for some)
—phone numbers
—service (house-bound friends, those without cars, family)

Using these sources of development helps me to soften the landing on to my own recovery, self-knowledge journey.

I don’t adhere to the “rugged individualism” Ayn-Rand school that rigidly holds on to the narcissistic philosophy of self-interest and exclusive self-determination. All knowledge and growth is relational, a result of the give-and-take between ourselves and others. Our growth is only half complete if we leave others out of the puzzle.

We need “others,” we need to practice observing our own actions and motives, we need to get outside of ourselves and help others, if we are able, and we need to avoid hiding inside our theologies as a defense against the divinity of all of our own experiences.





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