One of the things you will notice, if you ever have the strange experience of losing a set of deeply held beliefs, is that, at some point, you realize your old experiences are still valid. When they stopped meaning what they used to mean it is easy to sort of toss them away. But after a while you notice that you still draw on those experiences for knowledge, strength, and compassion. What these experiences mean has changed, but they remain important and relevant.
Some experiences in my life had a great deal of meaning to me when I interpreted them in a religious context: my initial conversion experience; my friendships within my religious community; and the many jobs I worked or volunteered for in ministry. When I lost my ability to interpret these experiences through a religious lens I felt entirely bereft. Much of my formative years drained of meaning; all of my work “growing up” unspooled before me in a tangled heap. With much of my young adulthood made invalid in my eyes I felt knocked back to an emotional adolescence. That is, I can assure you, not a very nice thing.
I felt deeply robbed of my own experiences. I felt I had been told a great lie and, worse, had turned it into my whole life. I could not trust my own judgement.
I floundered around like this for a long time. But I started making realizations. On a mission trip I had learned to hang drywall; I can still hang drywall. I had gotten over my fears of public speaking in church; I continue to be able to confidently talk to large groups of people. As a Christian I had read widely, argued vehemently, and had generally been a gadfly. Not too much has changed. I realized that, in many important ways, losing my faith hadn’t changed me at all. The person I was when I was a Christian is still the person I am today.
Can you believe that thought hadn’t occurred to me in like, years? You know what was even more mind-blowing for me? The corollary: The person I am today is the same person I was when I was a Christian. That might not sound world-shaking, but it was to me.
At 14 I stepped up to a lectern, quieting my shaking hands and quelling the quivers in my voice and spoke in public for the first time. God didn’t give me the courage for that. I had always had the courage inside of me.
I worked with jr. high girls when I was in high school, encouraging them through rough patches in adolescence and supporting them through the miniature crisis of periods, rumors, and failed geography quizzes. God didn’t fill me with love and mercy for miserable tweens. I had always been a good friend.
When I stepped outside of my comfort zone, whether that meant repelling down a sheer mountain face in the Adirondacks or clearing a soccer field with machetes in Belize, I did not have to rely on God. I had always had reserves of strength and perseverance within me.
I began to understand my old experiences a little like they were parables. They seemed to be about one thing, but turned out to have a deeper meaning. I thought many of my experiences taught me about what God was capable of but it turned out they taught me about what I was capable of. I thought I was learning about how important it is that God works through other people but instead I learned how valuable other people are just being themselves. A good tree bears good fruit, Jesus says. So, if I’ve got good fruit, why keep questioning the tree?
This is what I gained when I began reinterpreting my old experiences. And when I turned this particular trick of interpretation on other people they turned out looking just as good as I did. All those wonderful people I know from my church are even more wonderful in my eyes now. I know that they have created all the good that they’ve done. It’s really amazing the love and compassion people are capable of. I mean, I am regularly floored by how merciful and caring people can be and not even realize that those traits are their own. People get the credit for good things, not God.
We are the authors and perfecters of our own merits and good deeds.
What good things are you capable of? Have you ever experienced a radical shift in how you interpret an experience?
BTW, that is actually me hanging off a mountain by my fingertips!