I’ve written about how co-dependency is encouraged in our culture and relationships, so much so that most people don’t even notice how their relationship to self and to the world is permeated by drama and the inability to face one’s own shadows and pain honestly. Numbed by overwork, entertainment, and countless distractions, we live in a world that makes it easy for us to never look within, to never grow or take responsibility for our own thoughts, emotions, and choices.
I recently resigned from my library job and accepted a position as a technical writer and proofreader. I liked the stability and benefits at the library job, but there was simply not enough money or opportunities to advance, and college is looming close ahead for my 16 year-old son. I took on the risk of many changes, and although the hours are challenging, I like the work. I’ve made some new friends at the new workplace, including a woman with whom I share some things in common. One difference between us, however, is that this woman, unlike myself, is very religious. I am personally devoted to a quest for wisdom, self-awareness, personal growth and responsibility. She and I have shared some interesting discussions, and to her credit, she is very open-minded and I suppose very grounded in her faith.
What bothers me most about the Christian religion and religions in general is twofold. One, that Christians feel the need to convince others to drop their own beliefs and culture and to adopt Christianity, teaching people that without being “saved” they will not benefit from free access to “heaven” after leaving behind their physical body at the end of their temporal life on Earth. The second aspect of Christianity that bothers me deeply (and with which I personally feel Jesus himself would take issue, given the opportunity) is the obsession with “saving” people. Basically, I could distill this philosophy to a very co-dependent view of life: the “savers” are like adult children of alcoholics who are driven compulsively to “save” their parents from themselves. By slavishly devoting themselves to fixing others, like adult children of co-dependent or narcissistic parents, Christians feel virtuous and feel as if their life is justified by their work. Yet as A.A. or other twelve step groups teach, each of us is responsible for our own thoughts, choices, and actions, in as much as we are able, and to the extent that we become self-aware through deep self-examination and the work of individuation, as taught by C.G. Jung.
My co-worker would have loved to become a medical doctor, and she shared with me that she has participated in two medical missionary trips to Nigeria to help those in need of medical care, as well as to convert the needy people there to Christianity. I asked her why, if she really wants to help people, why she feels the need to convert them? Would it not be more generous to accept those people and their beliefs, to offer only the help that they request?
I learned most of what I know about world religions from a few different channels. As a child, I grew up Jewish and I went to Hebrew school, where I learned about the Old Testament. Later on, as a teen, I went to art school and then moved to France, where I traveled and visited many museums and studied art history. I also worked in many different museums in France while I was in school, including Musée Cluny, Musée Guimet, the Musée des Monuments français, the Musée des arts et traditions populaires, the Picasso Museum, the Orangerie, the antiquities museum at St. Germain-en-Laye, and the Museum of the Arts of Africa and Oceania, then at the Porte Dorée…you get the idea!!! Through paintings and sculpture and the study of books…and also meeting and knowing people from countries all over the world, I began to explore ideas and philosophies of life, wisdom, spirituality, and relationship to self and others. I wanted to understand it all, and it has taken me many years to distill my thoughts and personal experiences into my own philosophy of life.
My own family was (is) highly co-dependent, and my parents were very narcissistic, though no one in the family is a substance abuser. The result was still basically the same – enmeshed relationships where no one could or would accept personal responsibility for their choices, and where blame, manipulation, neglect, and emotional abuse were accepted currency. I grew up hating myself and feeling responsible for others. I felt as though if I could somehow perfect myself and achieve the success that my mother trained me for without my even realizing that her desires were not my own…that I would achieve love. That this desire for love and acceptance fueled my life and all of my choices…it took me a while to realize this fact. It took crossing through some depression and feeling lost until I began to find my own way.
I have come to believe that the world is indeed a very spiritually alive place. If religion was initially meant to guide people through the mysteries of life, I don’t think for the most part it does its job. Any institution eventually becomes rigid, losing touch with its initial connection to Nature and spirituality. Each person is fundamentally alone as he or she embarks on an unique journey during the course of his or her lifetime. This does not mean we have to shun collective spiritual life. However, nothing can replace the inner work of self-awareness. If we wish to separate self from a co-dependent relationship with family, God, religion, we need to look deeply within ourselves each and every day. It is the engagement with self, the shining light into our own shadows, and looking honestly while often flinching into the co-existing ugliness and beauty that populates each of our souls, minds, and hearts that allows us to grow, to individuate. Jung’s description of individuation is the transformation of the lumpy, somewhat formless and indiscriminate self with which we are each born to and through a process of awareness which slowly carves facets into the self. Like alchemists, we humbly accept the superhuman challenge of self-awareness, which is the greatest adventure that all humans can willingly accept when ready.
It does not matter what your culture or religion of origin may be. Buddha, Jesus, Rumi…all of these people and many more (many unknown) have embraced this journey. In art museums, you may see paintings of Jesus facing his demons in the desert where he meditated alone for forty days and nights. You will see Buddha depicted sitting at the foot of the Bodhi tree, serene as similar demons attempt to taunt and distract him from his own inner peace. We all have the demons of hatred, fear, prejudice, anxiety, anger within our hearts. These are not to be banned, just to be faced, to be known as facets of our being…being human.
We are so much less likely to attack others, blame others for our own fears and faults, bully others, and project our own desires onto others if we know ourselves well, and if we have conversed with our own demons. We have all seen films showing the brutal ugliness of racism in the American South and of Nazi Germany. We all know how powerful fear is and what atrocities it continues to stimulate around the world. We won’t have to fear the hell created by religions in an attempt to control the behaviors of those who are not self-aware. By engaging fully in the process of self-awareness and self-love, we become responsible and mature adults. We can be better parents to our children, more patient, more humble, more kind. In adult relationships, we become better listeners, and we don’t have to win at arguments. We can live simply and more harmoniously. At work, we can more easily mind our own business and appreciate the contributions of others.
As humans, none of us will ever be perfect. We all have personal shadows and demons, and collectively, in each of our cultures, we carry the burdens of the choices of our ancestors. We live in America with the legacy of slavery, racism, the greed of capitalism, the genocide of the Native Americans. We are all collectively responsible for the pain that our environment and the peoples of this nation have suffered. We carry that pain together, and it is always better to bring the pain into the light, to hold it with tenderness and ask it what we can do to be more loving and compassionate as we move together into the future.
I don’t believe that Jesus wanted his murder to be used as an excuse for others to not hold full responsibility for their own journey, their own growth. Like Buddha, Jesus was an awakened man. He faced his demons and awakened his full powers of discernment, love, and connection to the universe. We can all do this on our own, but it is not easy, and there is no one way, no one road to the discovery of self. Christianity wants people to believe they have the answer. And, to be honest, all fundamentalist groups want to bully people into sharing their beliefs. Those controlling systems are so similar to the workings of dysfunctional families. Just think about it for a minute. The guilt, the use of the word sin…the attempt to make people question their own judgment, and to doubt in their innate qualities. Jesus taught that even the most vulnerable and dubious of people deserve to be loved unconditionally.
Yet many churches today and in the past have often exercised the power to torture children and adults, causing them to lead lives in which they were terrified. Even Pope Francis, more open-minded than any pope preceding himself, has expressed that women who have chosen abortion may come forward to be absolved of their sins. How can he assume that choosing to not bring a child into the world is necessarily a “sin”? Many children are brought into the world and exposed to sexual abuse, violence, poverty, malnutrition, and often a lack of love and care. If a women carefully makes her choice with regard to her own life, the possible future of that child, and the well-being of her other children, family, and society at large, why is her choice necessarily a sin? Why don’t laws protect young children against abuse and prostitution? Why is it that religions around the world seek to control and demean women? Why can’t we honor people’s choices in the knowledge that we all have reasons behind the choices we make? Why can’t we teach people to make choices carefully, to love and respect self and others from birth?
To be human will always be challenging. We are beings of light and shadow, and our hearts are complex – beautifully kind and terrifyingly cruel. We are all of these things and more. We are creativity and destruction. We are each a world into ourselves, and we have been created to explore our inner recesses. To make the connections between the mystery that is our self with the mystery of the cosmos is the greatest challenge of our human lives. To wake up to our potential, to simply be fully alive…this was the supreme promise of Buddha, of Jesus, of C.G. Jung. None of these men were perfect. We each carry in our hearts all of nature, which is what many call God. The spark of life and intelligence that exists in every manifestation on Earth and beyond is connected to our humanity. In Genesis, I remember learning that the well-being of all creatures and creations was put into Adam’s hands. A great responsibility as caretaker was given to this mythic first man. Yet we have not lived up to that collective responsibility. As we confront the consequences of global warming, of slavery, terrorism, fundamentalism, pillaging of our environment for more resources than we need, the torture of farm animals, and the disrespect of human populations around the world, we can ask ourselves how we can return to balance? How can we live more simply, enjoying the richness of being around us rather than hungrily needing to take, to manipulate, to control humans, animals, the environment around us?
The answer is simple, and once we do the inner work, the results in our world will appear almost magically. We need to heal our relationship to our self and to the world. Dr. Jung gave us the answer, Jesus gave us the answer. Buddha gave us the answer. Rumi gave us the answer. In each of these iterations, we can see that with courage we can look within. We can each face Nature in our self. Nature is the greatest teacher, and She is inside all of us. By respecting and loving our complex self, we will see the greatness of Nature in our own hearts, minds, and bodies. As we learn to respect the great force within, our relationships with others, with the world, will heal. We will easily let go of guilt, control, the need to bully and to manipulate. We will gladly accept responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and choices. And we will respect those of others. We cannot change other people. We cannot save other people. We can only take responsibility for ourselves. We can open our eyes and our hearts and look within. Now would be a great time to start!