Let me tell you a story about two completely hypothetical people named John and Mary. When I’m done I promise this is the last I’ll harp on this subject. For awhile.
John grew up in a strict fundamentalist home. His father was distant and a harsh disciplinarian. His mother was the perfect Church Lady. John could never quite win the approval of his parents. John became increasingly angry and rebellious as he grew older, and in response his parents became even more strict and controlling. John moved out of his parent’s house on his 18th birthday, not a moment too soon as far as he was concerned.
While emotionally volatile, the 18 year-old John was hardly a child. He was precocious in many ways. He had always been good with computers, and he was also already recognized in some circles as a promising young writer with a sharp, acerbic wit. After leaving home John threw himself whole-heartedly into everything his parents had forbidden. He partied hard, got laid often, explored altered states of consciousness, and wandered down many intriguing spiritual avenues. He also set out to prove that he wasn’t the no-account bum his dad had always insisted he was. So while he indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle, he also scrounged his way through college while working various tech jobs. Things were often very tight, he made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot of hard lessons.
Now, at 27, John runs a successful web development firm and writes for various publications in his spare time. He has found a personal spiritual path that combines aspects of neopaganism, buddhism, and some other -isms which brings him peace, contentment, and a sense of place in the universe. He’s gone through a lot of counseling and dealt with the anger that was the legacy of his upbringing. John is basically a well-adjusted adult who enjoys his life.
Mary has a very different background. She grew up in a Mennonite family. They lived on a little farm, half an hour away from the nearest large town. She was home-schooled, as were all her many brothers and sisters. Her mother and father were both naturally gentle, nurturing people who dilligently taught their children biblical values from a very young age. While they required obedience fromt their children, they always tempered their discipline with even greater quantities of love and compassion. They always did their best to shield their children from as much of the secular world as possible.
Mary is quiet and reserved, and pretty naive about a lot of the modern world. But she has surprising depth that you would never guess at, looking at her staid, church-girl exterior. She has spent uncountable hours sitting on the hill behind their farmhouse, or in the hay loft, or in her room, reading, talking to God, or just thinking long and deeply about some subject or another. She has always had a lot of responsibilities. As the oldest child she’s had to help teach and care for her younger siblings, while also doing her share of the many chores that a farm entails. She has stayed up all night with squalling babies; stood by at 2AM with water and a towel as her father pulled reluctant lambs out of the wombs of exhausted ewes; she has watched as one infant sister was lowered into the grave. The facts of life and death are no mystery to her. She has seen suffering beyond most people’s imagination, on missions trips to the third world. And most recently she has taken on the role of nursemaid for her mother, diagnosed a year ago with terminal cancer, while shoudering the burden of being surrogate mother to all of her brothers and sisters.
In all this she has relied on her faith to give her strength. Her faith is something personal, alive and very real to her. At the age of 12 she had already taken posession of her faith in God – it was no longer simply her parent’s faith, but hers. God is a real person to her – a friend, a father, a teacher. But now, at the age of 18, she is dealing with the greatest challenge to that face she has ever faced – the death of her mother. She is wrestling with that age old question of why bad things happen to good people.
Through some quirk of fate, these two very different individuals have struck up a friendship. John and Mary talk to each other nearly every day. Recently Mary has been confiding to John the feelings that is working through as a result of her mother’s untimely death.
John sees in Mary the very same anger towards an unloving, capricious God that he felt as a teenager. He’s been there, he knows what it’s like. And he does his best to impart some of the wisdom that his greater experience has given him to his freind Mary. Remembering his own authoritarian father, he urges Mary to let go of the idea of God as heavenly disciplinarian father, dealing out punishment for sins committed by His most devoted followers. John tries to help her understand that people are not inherently sinful, dirty, and worthy of punishment and death. He tries to show her that her image of God is hurting her, that he’s been there himself, and he wants her to see that there is a better way.
Far from accepting his point of view, Mary dismisses his arguments. Remembering his own stubborness and emotional instability at her age, he tells her that he was exactly the same way at her age, that she’ll understand when she’s as old as he is. At this point Mary finds an excuse to end their conversation, and John spends the next three weeks wondering why Mary won’t talk to him.
What John doesn’t understand is that despite having many of the same questions that he had at her age, she is coming at them from a very different background. Mary’s conception of God is completely different from John’s. Having had gotten nothing but pain from his own Christian experience, John also underestimates the importance faith has to Mary. He doesn’t understand that to her, it’s as much a matter of continuity as of individual beliefs. John felt no connection to his parent’s empty religion; conversely, Mary sees herself as a part of a long chain of faith passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. It gives her a sense of belonging and placement. John also doesn’t understand the amount of thought she has put into her faith. He hasn’t seen the hours she has spent studying the words of long-dead theologians that also struggled with the very same questions that she is struggling with. He is unaware of the consideration she has put into comparing her own point of view with the philosophies that he has introduced her to.
For her part, Mary doesn’t realize that John was honestly trying to support her, in the best way he know how. She has misunderstood his attempt to share the lessons learned from his own youth as an attack on the basis of her life, and an insult to her maturity. Both have good intentions, and both have failed to communicate them well.
The moral of this far too lengthy story is that while age undoubtedly brings experience, and sometimes brings wisdom to those willing to learn from their experience, one person’s experience does not always apply to another. Unlike mathematical or scientific problems, the most trying issues we face in life do not often have a single, simple answer for everyone. Often the right answer for one person is the wrong answer for her best friend. And while someone may be facing the very same issue that you faced at the same age, they may be facing it with differing interests, from a very different background, level of emotional maturity, and amount of thought than you did. The answer that was wrong for you might be right for them. Or it may not. The best you can do is to offer your own experience as a guide, and not be offended when they choose not to follow your path. It may be that for them, a different path is actually the best one.
Take this for whatever yuo deem it to be worth, from someone who is without a doubt, young and very, very inexperienced.
Wow, that was very wise, and I definitely hadn’t thought of it that way. I think the fact that everyone has different backgrounds, and therefore different outlooks that cannot face the same experiences in the same way, is very important and moreover something I hadn’t thought about at all. That explains much. Thank you!
taking into account others’ experience before offering advice = GREAT!!
recognizing the advice you have to offer may be utterly without effect = GREAT!!
reducing any possibility of truth to being relative and existential = <shrug> i just can’t accept… if nothing is absolute, how can anything be true?
and this, of course, falls under the “Take this for whatever yuo deem it to be worth…[sic]” clause. 😉
my little standoff against the whole of Western society…
Believe me, I believe in absolute truth. But on the other hand, there are decisions in life in which there really is no right or wrong answer, except for individual cases. I realize that for you, as for many, religious belief is not one of those decisions, and I respect that. I may well believe it again someday; who can tell? For the sake of the point I was trying to make, I encourage you to mentally replace the central point of John and Mary’s debate with some nonreligious question.
thus replacing the debate to a nonreligious issue, i utterly understand and accept the point 😉
though it’s a rare time, indeed, that religion doesn’t come into play concerning my daily life, it doesn’t always require an absolute response.
For one man it may be OK to eat meat (or was it food consecrated to idols? I forget); but for another it may be a sin…
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