imgcol,32904,enDuring my mother’s last year she called to tell me she was worried about my eternal soul. I’m not sure what triggered her concern, but she was concerned. She didn’t want me to miss the family reunion in Heaven.

It is hard to have a frank conversation with your mother under any circumstances. If the subject is religion and you are from the South the difficulty increases significantly. Personal faith, along with race, defines most everything below the Mason Dixon Line.

I had no intention of telling my mother anything that might bother her. She wasn’t healthy enough to have to worry about my spiritual well being. At the same time I didn’t want to lie to the person who delivered me into the world.

I tried to be vague and hoped she would find something else to worry about. That didn’t help. I finally promised to read some material she sent and get back to her. That always worked in staff meetings in the corporate world. Our uneasy truce lasted until she passed away.

She has been gone for fifteen months and it still bothers me I didn’t have the guts to inform her she had no right to decide my values. She wanted me to adjust my beliefs to mirror hers. That sounds easy to anyone who doesn’t have to do the changing.

My mother’s religious conviction remained constant her entire life. She never went to seminary school, never studied any other faith, and never questioned whether her particular belief was the one true path. A lot of folks feel the same way. You’d think that a society that takes a month to buy the right car would at least dig a little deeper when eternal life is on the line.

Whether we are talking about religion, politics, or lifestyle, people stubbornly cling to beliefs that can be shot down by a trip to the internet or a smidgen of history. Our personal guidelines are a mixture of DNA, upbringing, education, and life experiences. We temper them with faith. Strong faith.

That is fine; people should believe what they want with all their heart. Lack of conviction isn’t involved when a personal course is mapped out. The problem arises when we force those beliefs on other people.

Each of us inhabits a tiny spot in the universe and stays a very short time on the planet. One would think this alone forces all of us to respect the opinions, beliefs, and habits of others. One would be wrong.

Communities across the South are littered with broken families because someone married the wrong demographic, saw the political world differently, or was honest about their sexuality. Parents become hurt, children are banished, and healing never happens. In nearly every case, someone is unwilling to accept that an alternate reality exists and there is more than one right answer.

In the end most of the stuff we disagree on doesn’t matter that much. We obliterate the feelings of those close to us and fight over things we can’t change because being right has become more important than living. Fear has replaced love as the guiding principle. How we look to others is considered more important than how we are inside.

Can’t we lighten up a little?

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Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.

14 Comments
  1. Just made a list of the folks I plan to send this to, but realized they’re all in the Amen Corner already… the folks I know who should read this, won’t. And wouldn’t. And would draw up a tight knot just thinking of the heresy and wrong-headedness!

    The morning the Berlin Wall came down, I went into work excited and jubliant. A co-worker ran to the bathroom crying, finally came back in to inform me that she’d been praying for me, asking God to remove the stain from my soul, because I was pure evil. I couldn’t figure out how I was evil because the Berlin Wall came down, but after five minutes I went to management, asked them to please order her to not discuss religion with me again. Co-worker said her church had a prayer meeting the night before, asking God not to demolish the world just yet, on account of the Wall coming down. You would all recognize the name of the church; it’s one of the major Atlanta institutions.

  2. Frank Povah

    I shall go to my grave thankful to grandmothers who insisted that I:

    1. Never stand for the English king nor salute his flag;

    2. Read all you can about all mythologies, faiths and philosophies before you criticize, or believe, any.

    The South has no monopoly on hidebound ideology, Australia has recently discovered a new “faith”.

  3. Terri Evans

    Mike, your observation about “communities across the South being littered with broken families …” is so tragically true and heartbreaking. I’ve known many such, and just don’t get it. A wonderfully thoughtful piece for these times. And speaking of “peace” …

  4. Mike I am not sure why you want to apologize for the South’s (below the Mason-Dixon line) way of life. It sounds like our President going around the world apologizing. The very subject you have addressed here is what has forced the south to accept what used to be taboo. If a marriage that crosses the racial barrier or the religion barrier or the sexual preference barrier produces an offspring you can bet your last dollar the parents or grandparents of the couple will baby-sit forcing them to at least acknowledge their heirs. The subject of religion in the south is a heavy duty one and coming from a large family I have heard the need from other family members for me to “testify”. When this happens I am reminded of my Father’s answer to his preacher Brother when told, “we all should live for Christ” as to insinuate we didn’t. He spun around with that look every boy knows just after we screw-up and said “what makes you think we don’t”. I understand yours was a special circumstance with your Mother but I would imagine she would have accepted any answer. Southern Mothers are like that,
    you know.

  5. Hi Mike.
    A great piece. Made me think of the psychologist Jean Gebser, who identified stages of development that apply to both individuals and groups. The list looks something like this:

    Archaic
    Magic
    Mythic
    Rational
    Integral (transrational)

    The Archaic level would be something like the undifferentiated, primal way of seeing and experiencing the world that we can imagine predominated among the earliest humans (and perhaps has something in common with infancy)–i.e. not a huge amount of conceptualization going on. At the Magic level, there is a belief that humans can control their universe through thoughts, rituals and other egoic actions. It is sobering to think how many of us are just a step above this–at the Mythical level, where the narratives of the world’s great religious traditions are taken to be literally true. When someone at the Rational level is tryinig to hash things out with someone at the Mythical level, it’s a tough conversation! Interestingly, Gebser pointed to a higher-than-Rational level–an Integral, transrational way of being in which a person can see the value of the previous levels, as well as their limitations. Such a person is capable of taking, and appreciating, multiple perspectives, seeing the metaphorical truths inherrent in mythical beliefs. What’s the limitation of the Rational level? It doesn’t quite satisfy our existential longings. Some people find “transrational” approaches that work for them: things like meditation, prayer, nature mysticism, or creative expression that are not characterized by magic/mythic belief. But we never leave these previous levels entirely behind. The task is to integrate them all, somehow. One gets a sense, for your piece, that you did indeed appreciate the power of your mom’s faith. and wished that there had been some way of reconciling it with your own worldview.

  6. Wonderfully expressed story. Ted Forrest’s response is a perfect book end. I will be sending both along to my 92 year old mother who has a sister stuck somewhere in the Magic/Mythic stage. They really struggle to stay in touch.

  7. Really hit a nerve here, didn’t you. I must admit I was intrigued by the first paragraph and had to read it all. I know what I believe and I don’t want others pushing their beliefs on me, therefore I don’t push mine on others. We’ll all know how right or wrong we are in due time. Of course, I know I’m right and the rest of you had better get with the program.

  8. Meg I have to admit I’m impressed! (not that my openion maters) You said in five words what these other Freudian comments took paragraphs to say.

  9. Melinda Ennis

    How wonderful and comforting to believe with all your heart that when you die you will be reunited with everyone you ever loved. That was the deep faith of my great-grandmother and many others in my family (not my parents who are really agnostic but would not admit it publicly). I think that kind of faith must be like being a child at Christmas when you utterly believe that a big, fat bearded guy is out there somewhere in the night with your Barbie Dream House in his big pack. Part of me wishes I had that faith of my ancestors—deep, abiding and yes somewhat childlike. But the ugly part of that absolute certainty is the intolerence that has caused so much sadness and hatred. While I’d never heard it put in the terms Ted Forrest described, I would love to think that there is some kind of happy medium in which the metaphorical myths of the world’s religions could be reconciled and melded into a spirituality of love, acceptance and hope. If there is such a “church” please let me know about it.

  10. Frank Povah

    Nicely expressed Melinda. If I do have any philosophy, I tend towards that of the “Aboriginal” Australians. They are, in my sometimes-but-too-infrequently humble opinion, the only culture on earth – that still exists anyway – who got it pretty-well right.

    They hold that there is no past, present or future – it is all one. They are the ancestors and the Dreamtime beings and the earth, just as the earth, the ancestors and the Dreaming are them – one indivisible whole.

  11. Can Jean Gebser’s psychological break down be applied to politics as well as religion as presented by Ted Forrest ? or is that where “church and state” step in?

  12. Cliff Green

    Melinda, there is no such “church.” But remember, “In the end, all things converge; and a river runs through it.”

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