If I follow my own counsel, I have to take responsibility for the consequences. If I follow other people’s counsel, I have to take responsibility for the consequences. This alone prejudices me in favor of following my own counsel.
If I follow my own counsel, I discover my mistakes sooner. If I go to a mentor or take a poll of my friends and behave as they advise, and doing so turns out to be a mistake, it won’t be my mistake, and all that I am sure to learn from it is that they were wrong.
No one can know for sure what’s right for himself much less for me. If I tell you I’m off to teach peace to the Islamic State, and you tell me it’s a bad idea, how do you know it’s a bad idea? After all, I might succeed. At the very least, it could turn out that if I stayed in Oregon, I’d fall asleep while driving and run head-on into a busload of school children, killing them all. No matter how sure we are that something is a mistake, none of us can see the future. I remember a time when I ignored my sister’s advice and later regretted it, but I wouldn’t go back and do things differently because I don’t know but what the right decision might not have led to a worse outcome.
If you feel the need to give advice, it’s better to avoid anger and condescension, because anger and condescension distracts from your argument and causes me to wonder if you’re acting out of a private agenda that has nothing to do with my welfare. At the very least, if it turns out that you were right, you will have made it hard for me to come to you for support because I will anticipate you thinking, “See there, I told you so. Maybe you’ll listen to me next time.”
Sometimes, a person might do as someone else advises because it seems to make sense, but other times, the reason might simply be a lack of self-confidence. Since no one can build self-confidence by ignoring his own best thinking in favor of the best thinking of someone else, advice-givers aren’t necessarily being helpful even when they’re right.
I think it’s nearly always better to ask questions than to provide answers. By asking questions, you’re encouraging me to find my own truth and my own path. By providing answers, you’re offering that which you think your truth and your path would be if you were me, only you’re not me. You’re a million miles from being me.
I have observed that advice is often obvious, left-brain, superficial, and insulting. For instance, if I say that I’m unable to stop grieving the death of my father, and someone says, “You just need to learn to accept that which you can’t change,” he’s implying that I’m such a moron that I never would have thought of this on my own. He’s also implying that he is my superior in that his own life is ruled by logic rather than by emotional need and desire, although I’ve never observed this to be the case.
If I have a problem, I will have spent many hours pondering solutions that the advice giver thinks of off the top of her head. I invariably know more about why I have the problem and what needs to be done done about it than those who would advise me.
Giving advice to me is hardly more useful than giving advice to a cat because I’ve spent my adult life ignoring what other people thought was perfectly good sense. I’ll give three examples. When I grew a beard during the summer of 1976, the principal at the school where I was teaching assumed I did it for the bicentennial and ordered me to shave before school started. I refused despite growing threats from the administration and the combined wisdom of everyone I knew. Years later, I joined the ACLU and American Atheists, despite the fact that all of my Mississippi friends and neighbors thought that these organizations represented everything that was wrong with America. Every time I’m called to jury duty (eight times in three states), I refuse to take the juror’s oath because it contains the word God. Nearly everyone I ever talked to about this said that I was making a big deal out of nothing.
What might look like a mistake to an onlooker might conform to a guiding vision that is invisible to him and, perhaps, only vaguely known to myself. I am not always able to defend my path to the satisfaction of my challengers, but I don’t take this to mean that I’m in error. I’m more likely to conclude that my would-be advisers are acting out of ignorance, whether of the facts of the matter or of my needs and values.
A decision isn’t necessarily wrong because it isn’t as good as an alternative decision or because it fails to succeed; rather it’s wrong when it originates out of base motives.
I think it might be possible that most people don’t share as deeply as I do on their blogs because when you share deeply, many people assume you’re weak, vulnerable, and looking for advice. If I were weak and vulnerable, I wouldn’t have the guts to share as I do, and while I’m willing to consider advice, I seldom take it.
One good thing I can say about advice is that those who give it are at least paying attention. Whether they are paying attention deeply is another matter, but they are paying attention, and I think that in nearly every case, they really do want the best for me.
The following is a letter that I just sent. I share it as a post because it says what I would say if I wrote a post. I feel badly that I can't keep the people's identities a secret from those who know them, but it's clear, I hope, that what I wrote is my impression rather than their reality. Once I share my blog address, I know that, forever afterwards, the person I shared it with might actually read it even if he or she never brings it up. Furthermore, I can never be sure but what that person shared it with still other people whom I might write about. I know all this, but I can't let it alter how I write because the point of my writing is to write openly about what's important to me.
Brent, when I started going to Resurrection last summer, I never intended to keep my atheism a secret, but I didn’t know how or when to broach the subject. I shared it with you, of course, and a month or so later, I shared it with ___ through my blog. I thought he would be likely to understand my position because he too lives with a fact about himself that many, if not most, people at Resurrection reject him for, however subtly. My father was himself a transsexual, and this gave me another tie to ___. When I gave him my blog address, I asked if he would be willing to get together and talk sometime, my interest being in how he made the decision about when and how to tell people of his transsexuality. He said he would, but when I next saw him, I realized that he must have read my blog, because he seemed nervous and intent on avoiding me, a situation that continues. I was disappointed in him about this since he plans to be a priest, but I told myself that he was only one person.
As the months passed, I came to feel badly that I was flying, as it were, under false colors by letting people assume I was a theist, but I didn’t know what to do. Then, ___ started attending the book group, and he seemed like an open and sensitive person. Also I had spent most of my life feeling as shy as he, so that too gave me a bond with him. One night while we were walking to our cars together, I told him about my blog, and asked if he would like to read it. He enthusiastically said he would. The next time I saw him, he said that he had “tried” to read my blog, and offered that it must be strange for me to be in the book group. Nothing more was said, and I got the idea that he preferred to keep his distance.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the lady who was hosting the dinner for new people. Peggy wasn’t interested in going, and I couldn’t go. I let ___ know these things, and she wrote back that her husband felt as Peggy did about church, and she asked if Peggy and I would like to have dinner with them some other time. I wrote that we would, and, after my signature, I impulsively put my blog address. I haven’t heard anything more from her, so I assume the dinner is off, along with the “loving reception” that the original email promised.
I find it considerably harder to tell myself that it’s only three people than I did when it was only one person. Maybe I didn’t share my atheism in the best way. On the other hand, polls show that Americans hold atheists in the same esteem as rapists, so it seems likely that I would have been rejected no matter how I had broached the subject. You anticipated a better reception, and I wanted to believe you, but my experience with Christians has long been extremely discouraging (when I became an atheist, I was shut out of the lives of people whom had always been my friends). Having shared what appears to be regarded as my shameful secret with three people other than yourself, and having been seemingly rejected by all three, I don’t see the point in continuing. I’m far from needing everyone’s approval, but neither do I wish to go where I am treated like a pariah. Nothing is written in stone here, but for now all the joy of attending church is gone for me. I plan to come to class on Saturday because I have to come out and return some books anyway, but I rather doubt that I will continue beyond that. I know that this is a busy time of year for you, and I don’t want you to feel any obligation to meet with me again even when you have more time, yet if you have any ideas that I haven’t thought of, that would be another matter. Emails are good too. In fact, I prefer them in some ways.
I understand that your vision of a church is that it be a place where people are cemented by values rather than beliefs, and where people can safely come together to share the news of their spiritual journey no matter where that journey has taken them. I, too, would love for church to be such a place, but I think that your goodness might sometimes make it hard for you to anticipate the failings of others. Without meaning to elevate myself to what I regard, in some ways, as your level of virtue, I think this is also true of myself, because, otherwise, why would I have ever walked in the door at Resurrection?
Whatever my faults, if the Christian talk of loving one’s neighbor is to mean anything, I have as much claim to that love as anyone. At the same time, I recognize that tribalism is a strong need within our species, and that church is one of its strongholds. I’ve even noticed that those outsiders whom your own church goes to such pains to help can be counted upon to remain outsiders, thereby allowing the church to see itself as helping its neighbors while at the same time trusting that those neighbors are unlikely to draw uncomfortably close. I don’t mean this as cynically as it must sound, because I know that there are other factors at work here. Yet, would you not say that the people who appear to have turned their backs on me are among those who take their religion the most seriously, and who therefore might have been considered the mostly likely to embrace me? You might ask what I would have liked from them. The answer is acknowledgement followed by normalcy. I wasn’t seeking conversion; I wasn’t seeking to convert; and I wasn’t looking for heartfelt conversations about God or atheism. I instead wanted to be accepted as I am, which is how you have accepted me. If, beyond that, someone had shown an interest in my experiences and views, that would have been wonderful, but I didn’t expect it. Truth be known, I got what I did expect, what experience has taught me to expect.
I have now told four people at Resurrection that I’m an atheist (three of them only through my blog) without anyone but Brent showing the least interest. I increasingly feel that I must tell people in order to avoid flying under a false flag, yet I hate doing so because I think Brent was overly optimistic when he said, “There is a place for you at Resurrection.” My belief is that if I tell people, they will reduce my entire being to that one fact, a fact that they find repugnant. Ever afterwards if I say something that surprises them, they will dismiss it with, “He just said that because he’s an atheist.” On the other hand, if I don’t tell people, I will distance myself from them, as I am already doing
Prejudice against atheists takes two forms. One is common among conservatives who take atheists at our word, consequently hate us, and look forward to lounging around heaven listening to our screams from hell. The other is usually found among liberals who seek to define us out of existence. The following is from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with atheist distance swimmer, Diana Nyad:
Oprah: “You told our producers you’re not a God person, but you’re deeply in awe?”
Nyad replied: “Yeah, I’m not a God person. I’m an atheist.”
Oprah: “But you’re in awe?”
Nyad: “I don’t understand why anyone would find a contradiction in that…”
Oprah: “Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe, and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is.”
I have found Oprah’s brand of bigotry to be commonplace. It consists of defining atheists as stupid, immature, or insensitive, and denying that anyone who is smart, mature, and sensitive is an atheist, his or her own opinion notwithstanding. Oprah is unable to entertain the thought that, just maybe, atheists too experience awe and wonder, but see no reason to call it God. My sister serves as another example of the tendency on the part of liberal theists to deny the validity of atheism. When I found her definition of God as “the universal tendency toward good,” lacking, she dismissed my opinion without argument, implying, like Oprah, that the truth of her position was so obvious that it needed no proof and the failure of mine so abysmal that it required no refutation. Such accusations qualify as reductionism, and it’s pointless to argue against them because anything one can say will be interpreted as evidence of denial, proof of a past hurt, or some other psychological limitation. They reek with arrogance, although they are invariably held by people whom regard atheists as arrogant.
When I was young, I was sometimes told that no one with all my many virtues could possibly be a real atheist, but I’m too old now for theists to retain their optimism. When I did encounter it, it was invariably from people I was growing close to, and it hurt me in the way I imagine it would hurt a black person if a white person said he was so smart that he surely must have some “white blood.” I always felt a stab of betrayal upon realizing that this person whom I thought I could trust only accepted me because they didn’t believe I was who I said I was.
To continue the black/white analogy, I’ve had precisely one black friend here in Oregon, but then I’ve only known one black person. She had been here for decades but was from Louisiana. She said she sometimes misses the South because the prejudice down there is out in open, whereas here it’s so subtle that it’s hard for a black person to know where she stands. So will it be at Resurrection when my atheism becomes widely known. The question then becomes, why stay?
Lee and Robin visited last night with our 21-month-old grandbaby. Brewsky hated Sidney at first sight, but has since become grudgingly reconciled to her presence although she tries to poke her fingers into his eyes. Last night, she had no sooner seen him than she hit him on the head, and this so infuriated Brewsky that it’s to his credit he didn’t bite her, but neither did he spend the rest of the evening hiding as he once would have done. Instead, he intermittently, over the next six hours, hissed long and loudly at her parents. Lee and Robin seemed mystified rather than worried, and I had no idea that he would actually attack them, so I did nothing to silence him, partly because when I chastise Brewsky, he has a history of later biting Peggy hard enough to draw blood.
I initially left it to Peggy to solve the biting problem, but when months passed, and he was still transferring his anger at me onto her, I felt that I had to help. The next time he ambushed her, both of us chased him through the house cursing loudly. She soon thought he had had enough, but I chased him until he was too tired to run, and I then lay on the floor and cursed him some more as he cowered under a recliner. This was nearly a year ago, and he hasn’t bitten her since, but I wasn’t about to stifle the rage that he felt last night because I had never seen anything like it. It’s also true that I could scarcely believe it, and this tended to paralyze me.
Brewsky is 4 1/2, and it has only been within the past six months that I’ve grown close enough to him that I’m content to not have a dog. I’ve always admired several of his features, for example, his self-cleaning feature, his litter box feature, and his never needing a walk feature, but now I admire him. My present problem isn’t so much with longing for a dog—as Peggy does—but with being tempted to get another cat. If not for Peggy’s refusal, I would surely have two cats, although I would worry about Brewsky’s reaction. I met a couple last week, the man of which talked his wife into getting a second cat. The first cat hated the second cat so much that when they were alone, he would pin her into a corner and keep her there. Brewsky seems content with his life as the only cat, and at 14-pounds he could be formidable if he didn’t like his new brother or sister.
Peggy plays with Brewsky and cuddles him to the small extent that he will allow, but I mostly massage him. He likes deep tissue massages, and never bites or claws when he’s had enough. I also give him frequent small treats. He’s normally so easy-going that I sometimes greet people at the door while holding him upside-down under one arm. I think it fair to say that I’ve become that which I never thought I would be, someone who loves a cat almost as much as he could love a dog, and to think that it only took four years. It’s only the trouble they represent that keeps me from having another dog (I never imagined that I would someday be burned-out on baths, foot-wipes, vet visits, wet wintry walks, and late night poops, but I am), because I would have fewer qualms about exposing Brewsky to a dog as to a cat.
I call Brewsky Sweet Man, Shit-Head, Fuck-Face, Best Cat in the World, and many other terms of endearment. Yesterday, I hugged him while pretending to cry as I said, “I love you, man.” So often when one straight male tells another he loves him, he’s so overwrought that he throws in the word man to avoid sounding effeminate or, god forbid, gay, and so it was that I got a laugh from Peggy by assuring Brewsky that I hadn’t gone sissy on him.
My only wish is that he was more affectionate. Of course, I had a schnauzer named Wendy who was less affectionate than Brewsky (Wendy would walk away if you tried to pet her), but I never doubted her commitment because twice she came after me when I left her at someone’s house. The first time, I resolved to never do it again, but the second time, Peggy was there, so I didn’t hesitate. On both occasions, I met Wendy walking down the road looking for me when I returned. Peggy says that Brewsky gets upset when I leave home even for a short time, and twice when we were both gone overnight, he knocked heavy flowerpots off the top of the refrigerator. This tells me that he feels connected to us, but as Peggy’s sister who has nine cats told us when we got Brewsky after decades of nothing but dogs, “You are dog people, and a cat is not a dog.” This is so true. I’ll always miss having a dog, but if Brewsky died tomorrow, I don’t know but what I would grieve for him as much I have for my many dogs because, as with dogs, he isn’t just like a little person in a fur suit, he’s better in some ways.