Finding meaning in wonder and well-being: An ex-fundamentalist’s tale
In what is one of the top WordPress stories today, Karen at de-Conversion presents the story of an ex-Christian fundamentalist (Southern Baptist), Bryan, who after leaving his faith eventually finds meaning in wonder and promoting well-being in self and others. This is a beautiful story that speaks to the indescribable value of a number of easily secularizable Buddhist values: mindfulness, an intrinsic appreciation for ourselves and our world, and compassion for the self and others.
Here is Bryan’s story. I have bolded some of the more beautiful and important statements.
I wanted to share an epiphany I’ve had after many years of wandering a post-fundamentalist wasteland. Maybe it will have meaning for some of you.
My Southern Baptist fundamentalist belief began disintegrating right around the time I went off to college. This was very painful for me (as I’m sure comes as no surprise to most of you). I fought it every step of the way as my faith slowly bled from me — my belief in Christ had formed the core of my self image, and my view of myself collapsed along with the elaborate theological construction that had undergirded it.
This was triggered not by liberal intellectual college professors, but by my inability to rationalize the failure of my earnest prayers to head off my parents’ divorce. First my belief in the effectiveness of prayer inexorably eroded, and eventually my dogmatic mind could no longer hold my rational mind at bay. For about 30 years I struggled in my search for meaning. I couldn’t escape the influence of that fundamental Christian tenet that without God, life has no meaning. I was agnostic, but I kept looking for some alternative way to believe in God so that I could recover the sense of meaning I’d felt as a fundamentalist.
I was caught up in the idea that I had to first decide whether I believed in God before I could build a new system of belief. I was never able to get beyond that first step. Yet after the painful experience of losing my faith, the last thing I wanted to do was to build my view of the world and sense of meaning on top of another rug that could be pulled out from under me. I’m happy to say that, in the end, I found a way of understanding that made that first step unnecessary.
A couple of years ago, as I was shaving one morning before going to work, I was thinking about a book I’d been reading on evolution. I have some educational background in biology, and I started thinking about some of what I remembered about the molecular basis for life — the fact that we (and the living things all around us) are mind-bogglingly elaborate constructions, assembled from raw materials drawn from the environment by the cells that comprise us. Beyond this, we each begin life in the form of a single cell that contains all the information needed to drive a developmental process over many years that eventually leads to conscious beings capable of experiencing love, and beauty, and wonder. In one revelatory instant I realized ! — whether or not God exists, our existence is a wonder. As I thought about this, it became clear to me that although many of us spend much of our lives in “the fog of the ordinary,” feeling that each day is pretty much like the last and wishing for something more, we are in fact swimming in, and even composed of, a sea of wonder. I developed a strong conviction that this is actually the more accurate way of viewing our circumstances.
As my conviction concerning this view grew, a sense of meaning began growing within me. I struggled for some time to find a way to concisely express what was, for me, a new way of viewing our place in the universe, and eventually boiled it down to the statement that my aim is to fully cherish the wonder of our existence. I’ve found this to be a powerful statement that can elicit a sense of conviction and meaning like what I once felt when meditating on Biblical declarations. Thinking about this naturally led me into thinking about how I should live in light of this conviction, and I eventually boiled this down to a simple dictum: promote well-being.
During the 30 years that led up to my epiphany, I was searching for something I could believe in without fearing that future experiences or discoveries would invalidate my belief. Believing in, and feeling, the wonder of our existence has accomplished that for me. It is valid whether or not there is a God. This view carries emotional import. In the two years since coming to this view, there have been many times in the midst of daily experience when I’ve repeated those simple phrases to myself (fully cherish the wonder of our existence, promote well-being) and found that they uplifted me and helped me re-orient my thinking (just as repeating scripture to myself once did). I don’t know whether this will be meaningful to any of you, but for me this view has come to have real emotional power, despite the fact that I have no certainty concerning our origin or the ultimate nature of the universe. I hope that some of you might find this helpful in your own search for meaning.
Bryan’s story touches on a number of themes important to wisdom and well-being.
Firstly, the danger of committing oneself to and identifying with a belief. Becoming so tied to a belief that one cannot abandon it without risking great emotional and existential disarray is a very dangerous thing to do. Doing this puts one’s locus of control, meaning, and well-being outside of the self. Identifying with a belief is a powerful first step toward vulnerability, anxiety and dogmatism. Bryan managed to break out of this and came to find meaning and strength in a more stable source: himself. By focusing on being in the present and appreciating the world around him with a child-like mind of curiosity and appreciation, and by constantly reminding himself to focus simply on promoting well-being, Bryan can find meaning in wonder and the promotion of happiness in the self and others. Now one may say, “well, he’s still got a big external locus of happiness: the world”. Bryan’s happiness comes not simply from the world but from his moment-to-moment appreciation of it. He has learned to not get so distracted by life to forget to live and appreciate it right now. With Bryan’s mindset, the world could stay roughly as it is or it could change and he could find satisfaction either way. Barring the possibility that the world goes through brutal times or comes to an end, a situation that would bring everyone great strife (though many fundamentalists would apparently treat it as the greatest thing that had ever happened…), Bryan is of a mindset that he can appreciate and find meaning in his day-to-day adventures.
His appreciation for wonder and the human experience ties to an important underlying theme of mindfulness. We live life right now, literally, but many of us get so “distracted by life” that we forget to be present in life. This, I think stems from us pretty much getting wrapped up in ourselves. Wrapped up in our social image now and in the future, our economic situation, our plans, and so forth. We get so wrapped up in social, economic, and planning/project concerns that we often fail to appreciate right now. And because we are so wrapped up in ourselves, focusing so much on how we compare to others, we create for ourselves great anxiety. By evaluating ourselves in comparison to others rather than accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, and trying to make the most out of our lives for its own sake, we create a very vulnerable framework for happiness, self-esteem and well-being. Of course many of us do have legitimate concerns. Many North Americans and even more people around the world lack economic stability. But how much of this is due in part to people feeling the need to “keep up with the times” and keep up appearances? The “need” to have the things that your neighbour has, and so forth. Now, obviously for many the concerns are far more serious than this. It’s not about having a home as nice as your neighbours. It’s about having a home. Period. This is indeed a problem. But how many of us get wrapped up in issues of coveting what our neighbour has but we (nor they) need, becoming preoccupied with status and so forth? What kind of life are we living that from grade school to the day we die we care as much or more about what other people think of us than just about anything else? Mindfulness is about being present. It is about being aware of the situation and one’s own thinking and assumptions regarding it, and being able to consider the situation and one’s position with respect to it in terms of the bigger picture of making the most out of life.
Something that Bryan slightly alludes to is the social component of wisdom—or maybe he doesn’t and I’m just reading into it. When he mentions promoting well-being, and in the very act of communicating his message to others, he hints at the interactive nature of wisdom and well-being. An overly individualistic society can be a haven for neurosis. People begin to evaluate themselves and others in comparison to societal standards. They come to appreciate each other more and more in terms of rank and less and less in terms of real human beings who feel real emotions, have real goals, and like each of us, just wants to be happy, secure, and feel that they are doing something personally meaningful and enjoyable with their life. By becoming so wrapped up in our social selves, we can come to lose instrinsic appreciation for ourselves and each other. This can lead to a relatively cold personal existence and society.
We live in a world full of amazing wonder. Each of us are real human beings who feel real emotions, good and bad, have real problems, have real worries, have real happinesses, and we just want to be happy, secure and feel that we are doing something with our lives that enriches us. When we come to evaluate ourselves and others based on how we compare to others, and come to build our lives around highly vulnerable externals (e.g., social status, particular beliefs) we create vulnerability stemming from an external locus of self-worth and meaning, and constant competition. Are we doing ourselves any favours by living this way? Would we not be better off if we committed ourselves a little less to our current beliefs and to our social standing and a little more to ourselves and each other as valuable people who are connected to each other by the common opportunity/problem that needs to be addressed: how to live a good life?
I realize that most people are not going to want to stop pursuing their goals of becoming wealthy and admired. Indeed, these are still concerns of mine. I just think it’s prudent that we be mindful of the big picture, which means being mindful of the costs of an overly individualistic lifestyle and not getting too wrapped up in ourselves and our place in the rat race.