Opening up to “religion”: a journey from perfectionism to vulnerability

I haven’t identified as a religious person for a long time. I was brought up with loose ties to some non-strict form of Christianity, “believing in” without really understanding what I thought of “God”. In late elementary or middle school, my mom’s new partner Paul joined the family and brought with him more religious structure than I’d really ever known. Nothing crazy. But my mom did become pretty deeply religious from then on, and we started going to a Presbyterian church. For me and my brothers, that meant going to church on Sundays and spending time with the church youth group. I remember playing games and singing songs. Nothing too serious.

In high school I dived into religion on my own terms after of a sort of traumatic event that left me with a lot of shame. (If you’re curious I wrote about it here.) There was a period of time after the event where I became very reserved and controlled. I think I prayed a lot. I went to church, of my own accord. I got re-baptized! I remember the church feeling important to me back then. It was a tough time for me, and I think I was trying to cleanse myself on some level. But slowly I recovered from the trauma and regained some of the energy and individuality that I’d held back, and along with that I sort of flowed out of Christianity and into the next stage of my life.

That was kind of it for me and organized religion. At some point I started identifying as “spiritual but not religious”, an ambiguous way of saying I believe but I don’t know what. Or I don’t believe anything but I believe I don’t know everything.

I get the sense a lot of people are struggling right now with the idea of religion, and the belief structures that go along with different religions. We have been shown different religions and taught that their differences lie in the different beliefs that they carry. Somewhere in that setup is the idea that someone’s beliefs are right and someone else’s are wrong. Each religion claims to touch the ultimate truth. Rationally – since our culture is more rational, scientific, and skeptical than it maybe ever has been – it cannot be that these conflicting beliefs can be in harmony. Or that any belief has a logical place, for that matter. What is belief in something that can’t be proved? It’s foolish. At least it seems like that’s the tone we take when we talk about religion sometimes. It’s outdated. Closed off. Irrational.

And yet… religious people are happier. They live longer. Many religious organizations mobilize groups of people in acts of service to the community. Many people find community in religion. Many people find answers in religion. That’s enough circumstantial evidence that … something. That there’s something there that’s worth looking at. Especially (though I didn’t want to admit it) when life hits you hard, when you feel lost and need guidance. At least that’s what happened to me, and what started the beginnings of my deeper spiritual exploration. And I don’t think I’m the only one! It seems to me that while many of the religious structures in place are being rejected, spirituality on the whole is being actively explored. I think more people than ever are falling into that “spiritual but not religious” boat that I’ve been in. What is that? What are we seeking with our spiritual exploration that hasn’t neatly fallen in line with the array of religious organizations we’ve been exposed to?

It’s hard to even explain what my personal spiritual exploration has been, because it isn’t like I woke up one day and decided to explore my spirituality. It’s more like, at different points of my life I’ve been dissatisfied or unhappy in different ways, and I’ve felt myself pulled to different ideas and practices that somehow helped me work through what I was going through. I picked up a meditation practice a few years ago, and I didn’t do that to spend time with God, I did it to be more mentally healthy. Same thing with yoga – I’ve done that on and off and found that it feels good to me – it feels rebalancing, it connects me to more of myself. A couple years ago after I finished hiking the PCT I went home for a while to try to figure out to do next with my life, and all of a sudden I discovered a series of books full of spiritual ideas that I just devoured. Couldn’t get enough of it.

One theme with all the experiences I’ve tagged as ‘spiritual’ in my life is a feeling of depth. Clarity. Meaning. Peace. The feeling of having my deeper questions answered, of having my concerns and anxieties be soothed.

Oh, if only I could hold onto the things I’ve found that have inspired that feeling – which, by the way, I want to call “truth”. And here’s the place a lot of us have stickiness and resistance, I think. Because our cultural concept of “truth” is something like “provable truth”. Material truth. Scientific truth. Whereas the “truth” that we encounter in our spiritual or religious life is more like “experiential truth”. And that kind of truth is a feeling. It’s a resonance that you feel in your body and mind and, if you have a concept of this, your soul. Maybe it’s the feeling of the soul. Periodically I’ve found myself in ruts in life, suffering for whatever reason, looking for a way out… and it’s the moment I feel the truth that speaks to my issue that I find my way out!

It’s actually an amazing process. And I think everyone has had that feeling of release and understanding at some point, if not regularly. The spiritual feeling of truth is like a dam being broken; it allows the river of life to flow wildly through you again.

A lot of my “spiritual truth” moments have been ideas about the right way to act and be. It’s so crazy, because we are taught a lot about right and wrong when we are growing up, so a lot of these truths that have resonated with me lately have been things I’ve heard my whole life but not truly understood until I learned their value in my own experience. (And maybe that’s just life, grappling with right and wrong and discovering the deeper meaning in the things we thought we already knew.) I know I used to reject religion because it seemed artificial to me to be told what’s right and wrong. A lot of the things that I associate with religious values seemed to be “common sense”, and I sort of scoffed at it. I remember thinking, well, I know all that, I don’t need to be told what’s right and wrong, I already know. I think I also saw religious people as weak because of that – oh, these people don’t trust their own instincts, they don’t want the discomfort of thinking their way through things, they’re just accepting a doctrine.

And yet, these moments of truth! Sometimes the exact thing I need to be told to get through whatever I’m struggling over is a piece of truth that part of me knew but forgot! I didn’t need a lesson, I needed a reminder.

This is the thing about our nature as humans – we know, but we forget. No matter how strongly we know something in one moment, it’s just in our nature to forget it. We have to selectively focus on things. And when we do that, other things fall into the background. It’s part of life.

You know what part of me rejects religion? My ego. My pride. I want to believe that I’m smart enough to know how I’m supposed to act, all on my own. That I don’t need a doctrine to tell me about right and wrong.

But that way of thinking has backfired in my life. It’s made me a harsh perfectionist. It’s made me unable to show others the struggles I go through – for if I struggle, it’s because I don’t know right from wrong. It’s because I’ve failed.

What if I can admit that I forget sometimes? That I need the perspectives of other people to get me through the difficulties I encounter sometimes? What are the ideas I’ve connected with before, that have felt “true” to me and helped me? Those things that have felt massively important to me at different times? Can we collect all those nuggets of wisdom together in one place, and visit that place regularly, so we don’t forget the important things as often?

That’s a thought I had a couple days ago – and then my mind went “a-ha!”

People have done exactly that.

People have collected stories that tell of the truths of the human experience.

People have pulled out the pieces of truth that seem to be most important, seem to genuinely help.

People have written these things down and experimented with them over thousands of years.

And we have documentation! And organizations devoted to studying the documentation!

They are called religions.

So I guess that brings me to where I am now. I think I’m ready to take my spiritual exploration up a notch and find a community. I think I’m ready to let go of my ego and admit I can’t grapple with this life all on my own without consequences. It’s a humble place to be because it’s an admission that I need help. But it’s also an exciting place to be because I now see a possibility for something beautiful on the other side of that door – I can share myself more authentically – all of me! Not just the put-together pieces, but also the broken pieces. The challenges. I can be human. Just another imperfect person trying to do my best. And I think the world needs more people like that. It’s only in revealing our imperfections that we allow assistance to come to us. How can we help the world if we don’t allow ourselves to be helped? Collaboration is about working together, and working together requires the balance of giving and receiving. Everyone knows that teams are stronger than individuals – how much of a team are we being right now, collectively? How well are we handling the bigger problems we’re facing – in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work spaces, our cities, our countries, our world?

On an individual level, I think this means practicing real honesty. I don’t want to hide my reality from the world around me. I want to get better at sharing my real feelings and thoughts, even though it’s scary to me because I fear being seen as weak or being rejected. I truly believe doing this will be better for me and the people around me – I want to help create a world with more freedom in it! More freedom to be as we are, to share our authentic truths with each other. Less facade. Less illusion of perfection. And the gift of that vulnerability is that you offer the world a chance to help you. People like to help each other! It connects us and makes us feel good. And it builds trust in life, to be vulnerable and to be met with love. Not to mention it gives other people the opportunity to be vulnerable as well! Let’s be real, do we want to live in a world of our projected selves or our real selves? What sounds more free and full of life to you?

Writing this piece inspired a lot of thought in me, so there may be future related pieces. We’ll see. Spirituality in the modern world is a pretty big topic, and pretty important. Sending love out to anyone who comes across this piece, let me know if I touched on something real for you, and thank you for reading!

2 thoughts on “Opening up to “religion”: a journey from perfectionism to vulnerability

  1. Sandra Gandolfo

    Beautiful Emma! I love that your exploring everything. I think there is no such thing as perfection but there is the concept of “better”. How can I do better tomorrow? Sometime we don’t know how to get there and even why we need to. It’s mostly self imposed. But that what keeps us strong I think. Striving for better. My faith keeps me strong when I don’t have answers. Trusting in my God knowing I’m not alone. Even when I struggle and when things ar good., I am grateful. I think on this journey you might want to talk to people about what “faith” means. It’s different for everyone. I’m happy to chat with you anytime I love you. Auntie Sandy


  2. Leslie Craig

    “Belief in something that cannot be proved” , is called Faith.

    I love this piece Emma . Thoughtful and inspiring. Once again you knocked it out of the park


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