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Kelly J. Cooper

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Outgrowing [Jul. 31st, 2007|04:41 am]
Kelly J. Cooper
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Tonight, I'm thinking about unconditional love...

I've started watching Saving Grace on TNT, mostly because I'll watch Holly Hunter read a phone book. I'm not sure when that happened or what the tipping point was, but I've just enjoyed the hell out of her in Raising Arizona, Broadcast News, The Piano, and Copycat. It might have even have been Home for the Holidays that really did it for me, I dunno. My memory's fuzzy. But she's one of my favorite actors to watch.

Also, the premise of this show is intriguing. A woman who pushes the boundaries of morality gets a "last chance" angel. If she doesn't clean up her act, she's going to hell. The fact that they leave "clean up" as a vague concept (so far) makes it work. It's not preachy.

There's also the bit where Hunter's character is a good cop who's had a tough life. Thus she's a sort of hero character whose decompression tendencies are somewhat desperate and pretty amoral.

Anyway, the show. There have been two episodes so far. I like it. But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

What I want to know is, when do I grow out of this vague desire to be loved unconditionally and taken care of completely? Because it's exhausting. Dramatic movies or TV shows about parents and children (usually daughters) in conflict coming to some sort of resolution, commercials with worried parents (I mean, for goodness' sake!), representations of people sacrificing themselves for the good of others, anything with an angel, especially if he/she/it demonstrates the unconditional love of God, they all knock me on my ass, emotionally speaking.

I was watching tonight's episode (the episodes so far are on TNT's website, if you're curious) and there was a commercial break right after a really funny angel-related moment. I got up to get more dinner and I was laughing until it turned into a sob that kicked me in the heart and I thought, "I want that." I had to think about it for a moment, to figure out what the hell it was that I wanted (more dinner?), and I realized it was the unconditional love part.

I don't mean to insult Christians or Muslims or Jews or any sort of spiritual people who believe in a higher power, but it's always seemed suspicious to me, the whole idea of faith requiring a lack of proof or it wouldn't be faith. It's just so... circular. I don't like the contradictions in the Bible and anything that's gone through the hands of man has received spin. I especially don't like a lot of things (too numerous to list) about Catholic Church (I was raised sort of Catholic).

I had a moment this past Sunday, while listening to a church service on the radio (waiting for WERS' regular programming to come back on), where I could not get the image out of my head of Jesus (listening to this modern preaching) laughing so hard he wept. It wasn't really a welcome image, although I sort of snorted along with him.

And I keep thinking, is this why people known to be seekers who come to religion late in life do so with such fervency? Like Cat Stevens? You search so long, so desperate for this unconditional love that when you find something that resonates for you, you fling yourself on it, like a drowning swimmer grabs onto anything.

Is this feeling, this need only going to get worse until, another 10 or 20 years down the line, I'm going to become a fundamentalist or something? Is this just part of the human psyche or is it something I can address with therapy?

I feel like, if I post this, I'm going to get my ass flamed off or upset people or lose the respect of some friends. I want to be clear that this is the way my brain works. I do not consciously imagine the faithful to be a pack of fools seeking to satiate emotional needs that actually originate as psychological deficits. I make a conscious and concerted effort to be non-judgemental about others. It's one of the main things I work on regularly with regard to my own thought processes and moral character. I don't always succeed, but I try like hell (no pun intended).

I just cannot put my head into faith space.

Um. Wow, that sounds dumb. Maybe because it's nearly 6am... time to shut up.

[User Picture]From: rmd
2007-07-31 07:51 am (UTC)
You search so long, so desperate for this unconditional love that when you find something that resonates for you, you fling yourself on it, like a drowning swimmer grabs onto anything.

i sometimes wonder if that's part of it.

Is this feeling, this need only going to get worse until, another 10 or 20 years down the line, I'm going to become a fundamentalist or something? Is this just part of the human psyche or is it something I can address with therapy?

my hunch is no on the former and yes on the latter.
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From: moria923
2007-07-31 08:17 am (UTC)
Wow, what a great post. I also get really weepy at scenes involving some type of reconciliation, when you know that whatever's gone on between the characters, it's now going to be OK because they've accepted each other. I have that "I want that" reaction too. It doesn't help that in fiction or drama, we usually get to stop at that point, so we imagine everything being OK from that point out, whereas in real life, even when you come to some sort of understanding with someone, you both still have your quirks, and chances are they'll still get in the way.

Another thing that sets off my waterworks is when a character receives some unimpeachable sign, or declaration, of worthiness. For instance, several years ago I was proofreading a fantasy novel for work, in which the heroine becomes a great leader and brings her people to a new life. At the end she's about to die, and someone says to her something on the order of, "You have done all that could be expected of you". Sometimes I think about how much I want that: some unequivocal assurance that I am *worthy*. And I know that, even if I lived in a fantasy world where such things were possible, it would never come to me, since I'm just not good enough or brave enough to deserve it.

I'm still a practicing catholic, although I've had my share of painful experiences with the whole thing. I was always taught that God loved us unconditionally, but not because we deserve it; in fact, we must always remember our own unworthiness. The unconditional love part usually feels very far away and abstract, so having faith, or trying to have faith, doesn't give me any inside track on the *experience* I think you're craving.
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[User Picture]From: catness
2007-07-31 09:00 am (UTC)
I imagine that, for some people, religion is a crutch, or a tool. But there are many for whom it isn't. I've personally known a bunch of different types, but I'll limit my examples...

My biological father's family is... sort of Default Catholic. I don't think any of them really go to church on Sundays, but they have all of their Big Events there, know all the priests and from which parishes those priests have transferred, and are pretty in touch with the Catholic communities surrounding their own. For them, the church is more like social lubrication than it is faith in all-knowing all-forgiving deity, but they still have this background belief in God and his... attention on their lives.

Contrarily, my best friend from high school's family were completely faith-based, while also being utterly and totally into the logic of science and discovery. They firmly believed (and as far as I can tell, still believe) in a God who cherishes each and every person unconditionally, and knows when every sparrow falls. They were utterly practical and rational about it, too, which I don't find in most self-labelled Christians, especially those presented these days as "Christian Right". They were very eyes open about the world and their place in it, and how to live their lives according to their code in a society that largely doesn't value it.* And, yeah... their faith in and love of God was really strong and permeated every aspect of their lives. Pretty wild stuff. They were great people to be around, and very intellectually challenging folks.

Adults who come to faith later in life probably get there in as many forms as there are people who were raised in faith; I don't think there's Only One Path for that, nor is it always based on desperation. There are more out there than the ones who are throwing their newly-found faith around for everyone to see and share.

I also don't believe that wanting unconditional love and understanding, be it from God, the universe, or one's friends/family, is an inherently weak trait, or a desire that is necessarily going to lead into extreme behavior later in life. There are probably a number of ways to handle that desire. Becoming one of the faithful to God, or whoever, is one way. Finding friends and chosen family capable of unconditional love and understanding is another. Being okay with some of our own traits that we find unlovable and worry about disappointing the world with... well, that's another and harder trail to blaze. Yeah, it would be much easier to have a higher power who already *knows* all about us and loves us anyway, but... if you can't stomach blind faith, then in this example you'd have to be that unconditional love to and for yourself. Not being disappointed with yourself would probably be among the first baby steps in that particular unconditional love journey. But again, there are probably a ton more methods of coping with the desire for acceptance than I'm thinking of off-hand.

* (On a not entirely related note, my friend Miriam herself scandalized our entire town by going to the senior prom as an 8th grader, with the motorcycling wrong side of the tracks bad-boy senior, informally voted most likely to end up in jail. She explained, "He sees some innocence and goodness in me that he wants to reclaim for himself, there's a lot more to him than meets the eye, and yes, he makes my pulse a bit racy but it's not like I'm going to sleep with him; that's a covenant between two people who love each other." Her parents found no fault in her logic or her intentions, and happily saw her off to the dance. That bad-boy was a perfect gentleman, and they had a lovely time. He picked her up in his camaro, though, not on the bike. :) It's quite possible her dress would have melted on the pipes.)
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[User Picture]From: catness
2007-07-31 09:01 am (UTC)
You know, having typed all of this, it seems that faith is almost equivalent (in my mind at least) to security, or to confidence. When I flash back to everyone I've known who's had capital F faith, they all seemed serene, or secure, or able to get through their tough patches by reminding themselves of that serenity, that sense of security in themselves or their deity, with confidence, in that faith. I'm not even sure that a higher power is necessary for that level of confidence; it almost seems ancillary. (Okay, now *I'm* rambling, and I don't have the 6:00 am excuse.)
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[User Picture]From: drwex
2007-07-31 09:16 am (UTC)
I also lack Faith, and I feel that the search for unconditional love is an innate and necessary part of our psyches. It's a part that enables us to survive the birth-to-separation years. As an abuse survivor it's something I've always missed in my life and it's made me particularly sensitive to its expression in other people. As a parent I try to reassure my children of it, every day if possible.

I do feel that all adult love is conditional, and part of the problem is that we know that at some level (subconscious, if you will) and we long for a return to that original love state, a Platonic ideal we'll never recapture. Some people don't deal well with this knowledge.

It is, necessarily, a deeply emotional subject and intertwined with other emotional expressions. I think Catness is right that people come to religion in many different ways and with different degrees. My own brother went "born again" because in part he couldn't get the love he needed from his biological family.

This is obviously a small snippet of a large conversation, but I have a hard time putting bigger things into LJ comments, sorry.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-08-25 08:13 am (UTC)


spot on, no god, garden of eden.
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[User Picture]From: metagnat
2007-07-31 09:51 am (UTC)
Faith is something I've struggled with. When I was growing up, I wanted to become a priest (allowed for women in my religion). Various stuff happened, and like many people, I stopped going to church in college. Though parts of the organized religion always chafed and frustrated me, parts of it were really, really great. One thing I particularly liked was bible camp. Many people have probably heard me scoff about it, and there were a few scoff-worthy parts, but the fact is that it was the one place where I felt one hundred percent accepted, one hundred percent safe and taken care of and one hundred percent free to express anything in my mind - including doubt.

That is a powerful thing and I think that is at the core of religion for true believers. It is a shame that to feel this way some of them feel they have to ostracize any people with doubts, as well as people who are different from them in some way. Not all religions work that way.

I will also say this - though I believe it is possible to achieve that same sense of community outside of a religious setting most people don't or won't. Part of the reason is it involves accepting *anyone* including the different, the clueless and the annoying. Partly, it's difficult to find something to draw disparate people together regularly. It's something that I find to be terribly missing from my secular life (especially since I left Baltimore, where I had a group of friends who was a little like that).

I've actually tried going back to the church of my youth because of the desperate ache I feel for that kind of community. It rung a little hollow to me, sadly, when I went. It's also difficult, when living with an atheist, to feel like you are being taken seriously in your own home when you have religious tendencies.

What I have to say about what you said is this: I don't think that longing is a pathology. I don't think it is something you need to get fixed. I don't think it will necessarily lead you to religion (though I also don't think that would be a terrible thing, since I really rather think you'd wind up as a unitarian rather than a fundamentalist anything). What you want is a sense of community that goes deeper and is more stable than a loose network of friends. That's something the majority of the human race has had since time immemorial till oh...about 50 years ago. You're evolved to want it. We (humans) work better if we have a tribe.

That's just my opinion, of course. I think if we had a tribe culture we'd need a lot less professional therapy and possibly fewer psychological drugs, too. Which is not to say we *wouldn't* need them at all or that they are bad things - I wouldn't run psychology down, it's saved the lives of too many people that I love.

I guess I don't have answers, really. I just have thoughts, my own experiences and some questions of my own - my $.02.

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[User Picture]From: gilana
2007-07-31 10:03 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing all that. First of all, as one of your friends of Faith, just want to reassure you that I did not take it amiss in any way.

I do believe without question in G-d, but it's not particularly a struggle for me -- it's like believing that Australia is there, even though I've never seen it. And while I do believe that He is a G-d of love, that doesn't fill that hole that's looking for the unconditional love and acceptance.

It used to be that no amount of anyone telling me or showing me they loved me could be enough. I craved it, I cried at those parts in books (and still do, sometimes). But you know, now that I think about that, that's been getting a lot better in the past few years, and I absolutely credit that to therapy. I'm a lot more comfortable with myself, I'm not quite as afraid of the nasty black places in my soul, so it's easier for me to believe that people can actually both really know me and love me. It helps that I have an amazing community of friends in Theatre@First who make me feel like I can really be myself around them. And I still have days where I feel left out and like no one cares -- but I can see that that's generally more about me than anyone else.

So I'd say that religion can be an answer for some people, but it's not the only way. And clichéed as it is, that unconditional love has to start with yourself. It's hard to believe anyone else can love you until you can really love yourself.

I know a really great therapist I can recommend... :)
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-07-31 10:18 am (UTC)
(nods) Yeah, this is difficult stuff.

Personally, I try to separate the spiritual issues from the craving-unconditional-love issues. My feeling is that if you approach a spiritual path from a desire for unconditional love and approval, that's the same kind of problem as if you approach it from a desire for power, or for sainthood, or for a variety of other things.

Not that there's anything wrong with these things, but that the craving for it is distorting. Come to that, approaching a long-term relationship from a desire for unconditional love can be problematic in many of the same ways.

Hm. I think I'm rambling. Anyway, thanks for sharing.
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[User Picture]From: hammercock
2007-07-31 10:27 am (UTC)
I just cannot put my head into faith space.

I can't, either. Not even when I was a kid. When I was 7, a classmate asked me if I believed in God, and I said no. She said I would go to hell, and I just shrugged. Nothing's happened to change my mind since, but I did have one experience maybe 6-7 years ago that made me understand why someone would cling to faith in desperate times.

My marriage was disintegrating, I was severely depressed and marginally employed, and I happened to be singing in a choir at the time. We were singing Holst's Psalm 86, and it's such a cry for the healing power of God's unconditional love that I couldn't help but feel moved by it. Whenever we would get to, "Heav'nly Tutor, of thy kindness/ Teach my dullness, guide my blindness," I would choke up, because I felt so dull and blind and lost myself at that time. The experience didn't lead me to become faithful, but at that moment I understood, however briefly, it might lead others to do so.
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[User Picture]From: lillibet
2007-07-31 10:56 am (UTC)
I often find myself thinking about 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.

I find it very interesting that it's a mirror.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-08-01 09:59 am (UTC)
Heh. I've most often seen this translated as "through a glass, darkly" and have always had the image of a poor-quality window. A mirror does change the metaphor in interesting ways. Do you have any sense of where the translation ambiguity comes from?
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[User Picture]From: lillibet
2007-08-01 12:16 pm (UTC)
I don't, specifically. Looking through versions at Bible Online, it seems like "glass" became "mirror" in most of the modern translations (i.e. post King James). Remember that "glass" in Shakespearean times was "mirror" so that may be where the confusion lies.
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From: selkiechick
2007-07-31 01:20 pm (UTC)
Life is hard, and big and messy. I think everyone wants or needs help coping. I think everyone wants to know that someone is looking out for them, and can take some of the load off, if only for a moment of peace. Some folks get this through community, through family or through faith. Some get it through therapy. I don't think that there is anything wrong with wanting to be loved, to be understood, to be looked after and wanting something... more. I was raised as a sort of agnostic pagan. I believe that there is some kind of god/goddess or spirits out there, that there is more to this world than what we can see, touch, record or quantify, and on some level that reassures me (though I don't know why). I also think that someone out there is keeping an eye out for me, because I have had far too many things go right when I really needed them to, in the face of common sense.

That said, to say I am wary of organized religion. All of it. Too much history, too much power, too much hierarchy.... for me.

As for people who come to religion late in life, I am not sure they do it with any more fervency than people who latch on young, it it the contrast, the change in their lives that stands out.

I wish this were more coherent.
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[User Picture]From: jason237
2007-07-31 02:12 pm (UTC)
I found this blog post interesting: it basically argues that you can find the metaphorical content of a religion helpful without having to believe all the factual assertions.
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-08-01 10:08 am (UTC)
Thanks for the pointer! I've argued essentially this point over and over for years, but he does it way better than I ever have.

Incidentally, this isn't just true of religions. When a friend tells me I'm "the best person ever" I don't treat this as an assertion to be held or dismissed on evidence, OR as an assertion to be believed on faith despite evidence. I treat it, like any sane person would, as a metaphorical expression of their fondness for me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-08-01 09:40 am (UTC)
You know, sometimes I can't help but wonder if one's desperation to cling to an external source that promises us unconditional love isn't just a dodge for loving *ourselves* unconditionally. Honestly, I think if you can't give that to yourself, anything you get externally will be ultimately hollow.

It may be that I'm somewhat cynical about it, though, and my gut reaction to anyone or anything promising such to me is that they've got some scam going. Heh. Blame my parents for that one.
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[User Picture]From: zanzjan
2007-08-01 10:36 am (UTC)
sorry, that was me. LJ occasionally randomly logs me out, and it's not always obvious...
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