The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.
I grew up in a household with two religions. My mother, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, raised my brother and me in the Jewish tradition, celebrating Jewish holidays with family and sending us to Hebrew school to prepare to be bar mitzvahs. My father, the son of two Roman Catholics and the product of a brief stint in Catholic school, supported my mother in raising us Jewish. The rare occasions we went to church were for weddings and funerals – my father did not belong to a church or attend any regular services. His Sundays were spent working in the yard, visiting family, or watching Yankees games. We spent Catholic holidays with my father’s family, and those are happy, secular, memories.
Still, I struggled for many years to reconcile a Jewish faith with a father, whom I loved and respected deeply, who did not share these beliefs. How, then, could I take these teachings as truth? How could I find guiding principles? These feelings of self-doubt and confusion were tested early.
The summer before my junior year in high school, a close friend died of leukemia, and I was wracked with guilt and shame – if I had only been a better friend, I thought, maybe he would have lived.
In time, I worked through those feelings, and I studied philosophy, hoping to learn where I had erred and how to form my own foundational beliefs. I began to explore the teachings and philosophies of Eastern religions as an undergraduate at UConn. While George Harrison and the Beatles initially introduced me to Hinduism, I took courses with philosophy professor Robert Luyster to read The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, looking for inklings of truth in the poetry: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be” (Bhagavad Gita, 12.2). I found comfort in these words, and in the words and teachings of Buddhism and Taoism.
Later, Abraham Lincoln’s use of scripture in his “Second Inaugural Address” (“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”) provided moments of direction. With a patchwork of ideas and philosophies serving as a personal, spiritual foundation, I found relative peace.
When my father died suddenly just over two years ago, we held a service in my parents’ backyard, because we knew no church nor priest. A Jewish funeral home made the arrangements. We held no wake nor sat shiva – prayers were offered by well-wishers, but none were uttered. Instead, we offered the words of Bob Dylan (1997): “I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will,” which some Dylan scholars believe he borrowed from Ethics of the Fathers, a Jewish text: “For against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die” (4.22).
For weeks after my father’s death, I went back to the Eastern philosophies I studied at UConn. In particular, I reread the Taoist story following the death of Chuang Tzu’s wife. When a friend comes to offer condolences to the Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu is singing and banging on a drum. As the friend asks why Chuang Tzu does not mourn and instead disrespects his wife’s passing by playing and singing, Chuang Tzu replies:
When first she died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter … If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped. (Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press 1996)
While rereading these stories, I thought of and read others; and in this gathering of philosophies and parables, I found temporary relief. I was glad I had studied philosophy in college, and I was glad I had had the opportunity to share these ideas with my father on occasion.
I often recall a conversation with my father as we drove back one summer night from Yankee Stadium. I shared the four noble of truths of Buddhism and the “Way” of Taoism, and he shared his perspectives on life, religion, kindness, and inevitable death. We talked about raising children (and being a child) in a home with multiple religions, sharing our experiences, difficulties, and perspectives. We explored our philosophies in an honest and open way, and we left with a new understanding and appreciation for one another.
And so, when moments of despair arrive, I look to many faiths and philosophies for guidance – from East to West, from Dylan to Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God” (Aeschylus, Chorus in Agamemnon). Against our will, we may know joy, plenty, and good fortune, but we may also know sadness, defeat, and loss. If we’re fortunate, we can look to our faith – or the faith of others – to find comfort, if only briefly.