It Started with a Yawlp
This I Believe
As Unitarians in the small town of Hobart, Indiana, in 1949, my parents brought me in my infancy to the congregation not to be baptized, but to be welcomed. I am told that I was given a red rose to commemorate my entry into the church, which I accepted with a Whitmanesque yawlp, as the rose accidentally pricked my finger. Hence, from the beginning, I learned my church was a place for unbridled individual expression.
Growing up Unitarian meant that as young people we were encouraged to be free thinking about religion. I recall studying a book titled “The Church Across the Street” and taking “field trips” to other churches and synagogues, with debriefing sessions afterwards. By junior high school we were seriously debating morality and politics. In 1964, Sunday school introduced me to a map of South East Asia. By 1967, I was fervently against the war, though on humanitarian and not specifically religious grounds.
As a junior in college, with a very high lottery number, I was fated to the draft and classified 1-A. As I felt it wrong to evade the draft through deception, I assembled a petition for status as a Conscientious Objector. While I could point to the influence of the church in forming my anti-war beliefs, the Unitarian church is not a “peace church” as it eschews dogma of all kinds. Hence, my petition for CO status was denied, yet my conscience was never fully tested as, soon after, General Hershey declared a complete moratorium on the draft.
Now, thirty five years later, I see a war not unlike that encountered by my own young generation, with brave young people returning home in caskets and on stretchers, while arrogant leaders claim god to their side in a righteous battle of good and evil. It is, I think, this appropriation of religion for power on earth that I find most reprehensible about the entire institutional edifice of religion. Indeed, I feel that many people have turned away from “the church” for this very reason and sought a more personal spirituality.
For me, even spirituality, however, fills no void. Certainly I appreciate the mysteries of the universe. I have experienced total awe at the sight of Mt. Ranier, the power of a good thunderstorm, the blueness of the sky, the sweet smell of honeysuckle and the wonders of my daughters’ births. I suppose these things and events might be considered spiritual in some sense, yet I see no compelling reason to lend transcendancy to things which are, in of themselves, in their own right, astonishingly present. These encounters leave me feeling not diminished but perhaps inconsequential while, paradoxically, enriched and privileged to have lived. Perhaps it is this notion of the numimous, the experience itself, unmediated by word, that, for some, approaches the spiritual. Yet, I believe the anchor of this experience lies in our humanity, not in our spirituality. It seems to me that the truth of the statement, “we are of one body”, lies in its literalness and, moreover, that this truth can provide the basis for a morality that can save the earth as we (should) know it. In this sense, religion is not part of my life. Faith in the potential goodness of people, however, is another story.
And death? For me, I foresee no transcendence beyond the memory of loved ones and the Einsteinian notion that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. My wish, as offered, again in a bit of Whitman:
I sound my barbaric yawlp over the rooftops of the world.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre in your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (from Leaves of Grass)
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.