Beauty, meaning, and freedom

Last week I wrote that science enriches rather than impoverishes my worldview. I thought it might be useful to describe more precisely what I mean by this. It’s easy to speak broadly about science, meaning, and beauty, but it’s not always very clear exactly what these words mean in terms of the real-life story of how someone came to adopt a particular philosophy of life. I hope you will excuse me for a longish digression into the personal.

There’s a joke about Catholicism that everything is forbidden unless it’s compulsory. I grew up in a devoutly Catholic home in which life was hedged about by prohibitions ranging from the absurd to the devastating. The thing that bothers me the most, looking back, is that these prohibitions were never questioned, even if human well-being or thriving had to be sacrificed to them. God had set up the rules long ago, and the chain of command ran from him to the pope to the priest to my parents. Don’t ask why. (I mean, come on: we were primates! Healthy young primates are born to wonder why, and “The pope said so” is not a very good answer. If humans are lucky, they make a lifetime habit of asking questions.)

Religion felt to me like a constant presence nudging me to examine everything I did, said, or thought and check for wrong-doing. The classic complaint of ex-Catholics is the church’s attitude toward many normal desires, and that was certainly part of the problem, but it went way beyond that. For example, before church on Sundays, we were supposed to fast for an hour before taking communion. That’s not that big a deal, once you get past the mental contortions required of the trusting young mind when beloved elders present utterly bizarre beliefs about eating god. The silly thing about it was that we were also supposed to remember to brush our teeth at least an hour in advance, lest we accidentally swallow some of the toothpaste and thus break the required fast. It’s easy enough to laugh at it now, but given all the other things I was taught (that god could visibly leave the host and shame the intended recipient if he were offended, for example), which I was unfortunately unable to question when I was a kid, this prohibition was yet another source of existential dread, a way that you might be offending an all-powerful, irritable force without even realizing it, on grounds that seemed hazy at best. (OCD, anyone?)

As I was growing up, I didn’t learn all that much about science. I read randomly here and there, particularly in astronomy, but still, my science education was incomplete enough that I did not have to confront the discrepancies between my belief in the Biblical story about the creation of the world and the things we had learned about that topic since the Iron Age. Frankly, my memories of exactly how my youthful brain dealt with this subject are a blur, but I do remember that my conception of the history of humans, the earth, and the universe was constrained by the story told by the Bible and the Catholic church.

My scientific ignorance didn’t matter all that much, though, because there was plainly no chance of being a scientist. Dream as I might about observing the stars, it seemed that women weren’t really cut out for science anyway, or even any job other than motherhood, teaching grade school, or nursing. Not to knock any of those jobs, but that’s a limited set of opportunities. (It may sound like I’m 90 years old and talking about the prejudices of a bygone era, but I was born in 1961, so my era is not quite as bygone as all that, and I’m sure this sort of approach to young women’s potential is alive and well in fundamentalist churches today.)

My problem wasn’t just that I needed to learn to disagree with my parents about the meaning of women’s lives and find my own place in the world. With the best of intentions, they described my role in life and the possibilities open to me in terms of obedience to the will of a strict, all-powerful being who had little truck with women’s liberation and evidently little use for me except as a potential mother (unless I wanted to enter a convent and worship him unceasingly all my life, of course). Their claim to have god on their side distorted the power balance and the ordinary course of human generational differences. (This is why I am utterly opposed to any distortion of normal human interactions that arises from one side claiming to be speaking for a deity of any type. Sorry, no dice. We’re all just primates, and we speak for ourselves.)

I married and had children very young. The marriage had some wonderful moments, and my sons are an enduring source of joy. However, it was not a happy marriage. As it ended, quite predictably, after a few years, I began to think about going back to school. I took a correspondence course in astronomy and felt my mind boggle at the scale and complexity of the universe that I began to learn about. Once I removed the narrow framework of the story I was taught as a child, the cosmos seemed to expand in a heady rush.

I did the classic thing of walking around a lamp with a globe and a ball to figure out how the seasons and the phases of the moon worked (it’s embarrassing to admit that I was 21 before I learned that). I saw a partial solar eclipse, went out and looked at a new comet I had learned about in the pages of Astronomy magazine, and caught a few episodes of Cosmos on TV. I learned about the Big Bang and the synthesis of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen in stars and the dispersal of those elements throughout surrounding space when stars died. It’s a cliche by now to say that we and everything we know are star stuff, but grasping the truth of this was a powerful, permanently mind-altering experience. I learned enough to understand, at least in the most rudimentary outline, how life had evolved on this planet, and to begin to comprehend, as well as a short-lived creature can, the astonishingly long time periods involved.

My sense of both the timeline on which humans appeared and the vast space in which we found ourselves shifted dramatically. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Before the huge panorama of space and time that unfolded before my delighted, awestruck eyes, the constricting walls of thou-shalt and thou-shalt-not were reduced to a manageable, even ignorable, size. Faced with the vast and intricate story of the universe as we know it so far, the stories I had been told of guilt and sin and redemption, stories that justified all the limitations enforced by worry and fear, began to look faded, childish, parochial, and distant. It was the most tremendous relief. I felt a dark weight rolling away from my mind, which became more and more free to move about in a much larger and more brightly lit space.

One thing I remember vividly about this time period after the divorce was spending summer evenings sitting outside and looking at the stars. I borrowed a small cheap telescope and looked at the moon, whatever planets were out, and various star clusters and nebulae. Late in the evening, I would put the telescope aside and simply watch the sky. If you sit long enough, you get a wonderful sense of the earth’s rotation. At that time of year, the Milky Way slowly crosses the sky; the spring constellations that were low in the west at sunset give way to the stars of summer, and eventually fall stars creep into view over the eastern horizon in the small hours before dawn.

I remember sitting out there one night and feeling a light breeze pass by as I watched the face of the night sky wheel by overhead. I found a deep pleasure in understanding, in rough terms anyway, the source of the wind (ultimately, the sun, which heats the earth unevenly), and knowing enough about what I was seeing in the night sky to feel like I was part of a fascinating universe and was able to comprehend it. The wind moved my hair, and it moved the leaves on a small tree nearby. I felt a sense of communion with the living world around me and the cosmos from which it had arisen. (It was eerily perfect, a couple of years later, to run across Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful description of a similar experience in his poem The Heart of Herakles.)

More importantly, I felt like I had a right to be there. I was just another carbon-based life form, just like the tree. Far from feeling reduced in rank by realizing that I was an animal, I found it glorious to realize that I was not born sinful and flawed; I did not have to justify my existence by living up to someone else’s standards for perfection, masquerading as the divine will. I did not even need to bother any more about the censorious words of busybodies at church. Whatever kind of person I was, whatever my needs and interests and desires were, I needed to honor and fulfill those without hurting anyone else. That’s it. I felt like I had a place in the world that I could occupy without apology.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I was transformed overnight; I wasn’t. It took years to unravel the worst of the knots in my mind, and doubtless the people close to me can identify places still in need of work. (One of my sons said to me recently that a fundamentalist religious upbringing is a good way to create atheists and freethinkers, and this is true, but I think there must be easier and more humane ways to do it.) But the knowledge that the true story of the universe was vastly more intricate and wonderful than I had been taught, and the feeling of being part of a beautiful, totally natural universe that we can explore using science, is priceless to me and remains at the core of my belief system today.

3 Comments

  1. That was lovely. I felt that weight lift, too. It was fear and it felt like black smoke rolling down off my shoulders and suddenly I realized I could think about whatever I wanted to without worrying about it. I think I still believe in God, I just don’t believe he’s living in my head looking for things to damn me for, anymore.

    The toothpaste thing though . . . my goodness, I ‘d never heard anything like that.

    And you’re right that there are still women who think all they should do is the mothering, teaching, nursing route. I think I had that in my brains and it may have had a hand in my current career apoplexy.

  2. Thank you! It is wonderful when the weight rolls away, and I love your description of no longer believing that God was “living in your head looking for things to damn you for.” That’s pretty much what my earlier beliefs felt like too.

    Re: the toothpaste thing: I won’t say that Catholicism is more prone to peculiarities than any other church, but it does produce some very distinctive peculiarities. :)

    Good luck with the career apoplexy! When something is in your brains since childhood, it can take a little time to figure out what you really want versus what is mostly conditioning.

  3. After reading all this, I’m left with lots of feelings and a few disjointed thoughts.

    One, I was lucky to be born without the black smoke cloud, but I am inspired by the journey of folks who have emerged from it into the big wide world. That must be one hell of a trip. Hats off to those who make it. Maybe it is like coming out, in that we can/must do it again and again.

    Two, I need to sit outside at night more often. Minnesota is never really sure about spring, but I think it is mostly done trying to freeze my fingers off. I think it’s time to put the hammock up.

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