Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memo to the Wolf Blitzers of the World: Don't Assume Everyone Believes in God

On Tuesday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed a young mother who survived the deadly Oklahoma tornado. "You've gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord?," he asked.

The young woman briefly hesitated. "I'm actually an atheist," she said, and laughed off Blitzer's awkward, foot-in-mouth moment.

Having just returned from Charlotte, N.C., where a Starbucks barista said "God bless you" after a transaction and a shuttle driver freely expressed his belief in God to me and other strangers, Wolf Blitzer's question makes me bristle.

Perhaps I'm old school. But I firmly believe religion is a deeply private matter. It's not something you bring up with strangers, unless you happen to meet those strangers at a like-minded religious gathering. I even believe you should be careful mentioning religion with friends and family members. But judging from the religious postings I see frequently on Facebook, I'm in the minority here.

Religion, politics, money, sex. They're all vitally important topics, but in my view, they're usually not something to be casually brought up. The fact is, there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and others in the world whose spiritual beliefs don't align with yours. When you express your religious beliefs to them, you make them uncomfortable at best, combative at worst.

Admittedly, my 'God is great' antenna are always out, probably because as a gay kid growing up in the South, God was often used against me. (I'm gay, therefore I'll burn in hell is the general theory.) Luckily, my parents didn't participate in this charade. My father strongly disliked it when someone would bring up their religious beliefs. This was because his mother was a Bible-thumping Baptist who forced religion on him and his brother. Not surprisingly, her actions had nearly the opposite effect.

My father decided that he wanted to expose my sisters and I to the Christian church and for us to be confirmed in the church. We attended a nearby United Church of Christ, but not all that often. In fact, I visited Sunday school so infrequently as a child, the teacher assumed I was chronically ill. Mischievous kid that I was, I didn't discourage her assumption. After we were confirmed, my sisters and I were free to participate--or not--in the church.

As tempting as it might be, I'm not going to share my spiritual beliefs in this post, because I feel so strongly about how personal those beliefs are. However, I'll add that if you have strong religious beliefs, I'm happy for you. Seriously. Life can be extremely challenging, and we all need something to get us through the difficult as well as the joyful parts. We must all find meaning to our lives, to understand humility and gratitude, and religion can be a powerful means to those ends.

But if you're a rental car company shuttle bus driver, or a Starbucks barista, or Wolf Blitzer, or a Facebook friend, don't assume I share your religious views. Or that your beliefs are better than mine. Or that you need to lay your beliefs on me like a choir robe. We're all believers in something, and we often don't believe in the same things, and to that I say: Amen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Do Americans Want? More!

This tale begins and ends with biology.

One afternoon, during my junior year in college, I sat in biology class, befuddled as usual. So I tuned out the teacher, flipped a page in my notebook, and wrote out my post-college goals. They were as follows:

1. Be a writer.
2. Live in a big city.
3. Have a partner.

Miraculously, within eight years, I'd achieved everything on my to-do list. You'd think I've been content ever since--and I am, at least where the city (San Francisco) and the partner (Nick) are concerned. And yet, I continue to strive, plot, and scheme. I'm always looking ahead at what's next, whether it's my next career move or my next meal (or both).

In that sense, I suspect I'm typically American. Unlike, say, the Italians, who savor il dolce far niente, Americans typically don't know how to appreciate "the sweetness of doing nothing." We're rarely content with where we are, what we have, who we are, and what we do. We're always looking for something else, something new, something more.

There's a fabulous scene in one of my favorite films, Key Largo, that expresses the perpetual American drive. Edward G. Robinson plays a gangster on the run, holding the occupants of a Florida hotel hostage so he can elude the police--as a hurricane approaches, no less. I'm paraphrasing and condensing here, but basically, Humphrey Bogart says to Edward G.: "I know what you want. You want more!," to which Edward G. heartily agrees.

Stay with me, as I'm about to connect the dots.

Last Friday was a warm, sunny day, so Nick and I did something we rarely do: play hooky. We scampered off to our favorite beach, Gray Whale Cove, just south of San Francisco. Nick snoozed on and off, I read the newspaper. And then I did something that's even more rare than playing hooky. I simply sat and watched the sunlight sparkle off the waves. After a while, my mind drifted back to my college junior days, when I scribbled down my life's goals in biology class. I saw myself then and now. I felt a deep contentment.

As I continued to watch the sea with no purpose in mind, I noticed a spout of water shooting up, about 100 yards off shore. The water often sprays upward here after crashing against a rock, so I didn't think much about it. And then, another spout, and another, and before long, a large black fin poked through the waves, followed by another. Whales! In all the years we've enjoyed Gray Whale Cove, we had never seen a whale here before. (I tried to grab a photo; below is the best I could manage.)

Maybe the whales were there on previous visits and I just didn't see them? Who knows. But this much is certain. If we hadn't taken time off to "do nothing"--i.e., go to the beach--and if I hadn't been gazing at the sea without motivation, I'd probably have missed this thrilling example of biology in action. Or, to put it another way, by not looking for "more," I found it.