Memoir: Where I’m From

I’m from the land of Duality, of black and white, good and evil, sinners and saints. The land of up or down, win or lose, and nothing in between. 

For years, I saw life in zero-sum terms, and was therefore blinded to a full spectrum of experience.

I received my first pair of split-vision lenses from my parents, who got theirs from their parents’ faith in the Old and New Testaments. For those who haven’t read them, these books have strict delineations between one thing and another,  things that are the Lord’s,” and therefore righteous, and things of man, and therefore damnable.

All of humanity, through the family lens, was binary: the saved, people like my family, going to heaven for eternity, and the sinners, most of the population, including my school mates, who were hell-bound. My Sunday School teachers told me with absolute sincerity, “there are no exceptions to this rule.”

Jesus’ “those who are not with me are against me” confirmed it. So what if I felt isolated from my peers? My faith consoled me in my oddity, 

When I turned on my black and white TV in 1968, seven-year-old me learned that on the entire planet, there were but two social systems–the free and prosperous one, such as we had in the USA – and the Communist, atheist, impoverished one. I saw the Vietnam War as a mortal combat betweenJustice and truth versus totalitarian thuggery. 

My family ancestors found in their faith a place to come together with friends, relax in an alcohol-free space, and cultivate certainty in an ambiguous, fearsome world. Their assembly was a shelter from the violence of unchecked capitalism outside church doors–first in Victoria’s UK, then in the states through the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression.

As it was for my ancestors, Church for me as a boy was a place of calm. Yet after I stopped attending services, and in different ways throughout my life, I have consistently sought out the dopamine rush of confirmation bias. 

This tilt toward rigid thinking comes not just from my genes but from a chronically distressful home life. Seeing things as either-or comforted me through difficult days. And it squelched chaos like a charm.

My aspiration now, in my last years, is to grasp principles loosely, knowing they won’t be right for long or in every circumstance. My hope is to one day be a “moderate man,” as described by Lao Tsu in Tao te Ching no. 59:

The mark of a moderate man 

Is freedom from his own ideas.

Tolerant like the sky,

all-pervading like sunlight,

firm like a mountain, 

supple like a tree in the wind,

he has no destination in view

and makes use of anything 

life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.

Because he has let go, 

he can care for the people’s welfare

as a mother cares for her child. 

Out here in the flow of real human life, beyond the false anchors of objective truths, I’ve found real joy in helping my fellow humans, people wonderfully unreducible to zeroes and ones.   

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