It’s been a long time since a classic post. Forgive me if I’m a bit rusty.
Every few months, I go back to church just to see how it compares to the last time I went, and each time the experience is more bizarre.
The service itself has become increasingly uncomfortable for me. When the congregation speaks in unison, the chorus of mumbles precisely imitate what I imagine hypnotized zombies to sound like. I still enjoy the singing, but the emotions involved are more akin to singing along to Rihanna than anything else. The lyrics are distant and meaningless, simply being a mechanism by which to carry the tune. The sermon is a long series of statements that I just don’t agree with; where once I felt great confusion over how I felt about the implications of the content, I now simply see totally different interpretation of our existence. The crowning moment of awkwardness is when I lift my hand to deny the communion plate. The server pauses for a moment, as if to make sure he didn’t just imagine that I did what he thinks I just did. The guy sitting next to me stares at his piece of bread with absurd intensity. Every time. I remember how I looked around to see who was and was not taking communion, and I know that a very large number of eyes took note of my choice. I know that single decision molds the interactions I experience thereafter. I can sense in each conversation a careful tiptoeing and delicate probing to see where I am, and how I am doing.
I could never resent them for it; I did the very same thing, once upon a time. It is only natural to engage thusly, when convictions as grave as theirs are held in such high esteem. It is doubly made up by the simple fact that so many people are genuinely excited to see me and interested to hear how my life is progressing. Such instant engagement devoid of hidden strings and obligations is unique. I’m never able to guess how much they know about my life, but I want to make sure I’m sharing meaningful things because of how interested they are. I want to mention I quit smoking recently, but I don’t think they knew I ever started. I want to say that I’m enjoying being twenty-one, but I don’t think they’d have much to say on the topic.
As the event draws to a close, I’m left wondering why an environment like this has not been replicated elsewhere. Why is this one of the few places I can go where I am known and celebrated, even though I am not a part of the community? Christians will say that it is because the church is accurately embodying the nature of Christ. I don’t buy that – it seems apparent to me that this a sociological phenomenon driven by unified purpose. Non-Christians might imply that it’s all a matter of social manipulation, that it’s how they warm you up for the inevitable conversion. I don’t buy that either – I’ve known some of these people for over a decade, and I know when they’re being false. I know how they saw me when I still believed, and I can see how that differs from now. They certainly want to see me come back into the fold, but I don’t think that desire overrides their interest in me as a person.
I met a guy from Kazakhstan last night. We talked at length on the differences between Kazakh society versus American society. He seemed intensely disappointed in the quality of America’s social support systems. He described the competition within the educational system, and how unthinkable such ruthlessness would be in his home country. We discussed the overwhelming focus on the importance of money, and the unwillingness of friends and strangers alike to share resources. Nonetheless, he described himself as being one of the luckiest in Kazakhstan to have access to some of the best education in the world, and he was excited to take his knowledge back home. I told him that, likewise, I am unquestionably fortunate to have friends to support me while I looked for a job. I don’t believe most people in America have friends that would do that.
Much of this can be explained simply by the differences between collectivist and individualist behavior. When individuals consider the benefit of the whole before themselves, many choices become exceedingly clear. There is no question of whether or not to help. American individualism has trouble finding room for this.
At times, I am certainly too harsh on America. Every country bears deep flaws, deftly masked by parading the best the culture has to offer. Still, it does seem to me that most other cultures have found reliable ways to ensure that healthy, strong communities are established. Where is that, in America? Where can one go to find a place of belonging? Why does the choice, in America, appear to be between religion and shitty American bar culture? My perspective is, of course, blighted by the limited variety of the Ithaca scene, but I’m willing to propose the statement holds generally true.
The situation does change for families. I’ve observed in my work environment that mothers have a plethora of activities that revolve around their kids. Their children are the impetus for getting out and meeting other people like themselves, and the relationships formed therein can be a very strong support network. I’ve noticed in others that the introduction of children can itself be an extremely potent mobilizer. Intensely dreaded though spawning may be, the forced change can rescue an otherwise stagnant life.
Yet still, all of these options seem terribly contrived. The depth of my philosophical misgivings prevent me from pursuing serious involvement in the church community, though I am jealous of the deep and meaningful relationships that are formed therein. My lack of a burning desire for regular, anonymous sex and drunken escapades makes bar culture relatively unpromising, though I am desiring of the personality characteristics required to succeed in that environment.
Obviously, my only option is to have babies. Babies everywhere.