Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Problem with Labels

Looking over my first full year as a mother, I noticed something about myself.  I'm not as superstitious as I used to be.  Tonight is New Year's Eve, and normally I run around making sure the house is clean, there are no outstanding balances anywhere, no grudges held, everything ready to ring in the new year with no old baggage.  But tonight, I'm not stressing about any of that.  There is nothing magical about tonight's midnight.  It's an arbitrary social convention established to help us divide events in time.  I will not jinx my 2015 if I'm still line drying clothes washed in 2014 (the day before).

Similarly, I've noticed that I'm not as religious as I was when starting the year. I hate to say it (Ok, the old me would hate to say it), but there's a  lot of overlap between what's deemed superstitious and what's considered religious.  Mainly it's a matter of perspective.  And this year, try as I did, I just can't recapture my old sense of religiosity.  My last ditch effort was to convert to Judaism, but then I realized it made no sense to do so if it wasn't because I thought there was more truth in Judaism than there is in Catholicism, where I'm already comfortable at least.  And while the unofficial Quaker in me still hopes to one day find a meeting where I will feel at home, as it stands, all religion seems to be an elaborate system of myth, legend, superstition, brainwashing, and power trips.  On one hand, these are meant to encourage the masses to follow some level of ethical living.  On the other hand, they mask the truth and beauty and genius of God that is buried deep underneath all the excess baggage.

As I've considered my spiritual journey thus far, I've noticed that I give way too much thought to external validation.  I've always been an outsider, so I don't know why I ever thought that I could actually find a religious community where I fit right in, both in terms of practice and belief.  And yet I've tried, and taken way too personally when others take it upon themselves to tell me I'm not "..." enough to really call myself X. 

Well, I've just about had it with trying to please fellow human beings.  Perhaps they actually believe everything the Catholic Church (for instance) teaches, and that's great for them.  But for them to try to tell me that unless I am at least trying to accept the official dogma I'm not "really Catholic", that's just absurd, ignorant, and their problem - not mine!  Being Catholic, heck, being any religion, is merely one aspect of one's culture.  I grew up with Catholic tradition, I went through the external Catholic sacraments of initiation, I choose to worship at a Catholic church (for now), and that's as Catholic as I'm going to be.  So what if the more observant Catholics bemoan my presence?  So what if they try to tell me to "go where I do believe what is being taught"?  Why should I have to leave?  That is only applicable if I'm working within their framework of what is True and holy and valuable. 

I'm not purposefully going to go out of my way to disrespect any religious sentiment (so long as it doesn't fly directly in the face of my values, which sadly some religious teachings do).  But I'm not going to be pushed out and treated like a pariah for being a free thinker. 

My problem all along, of course, has been that I wanted to belong.  And when I couldn't conform my own mind in order to belong, I set out to try to find those who already agreed with me so we could belong together.  Now that I'm finding that hard to find, I may need to reassess this need altogether.  Why do I need to belong to an official religious community?  Why must there be a commonly understood label for my spiritual experience?  Why must I be like everybody else?

Politically speaking, I'm an Independent.  I do not vote based on a candidate's party affiliation because individuals vary too much.  What a party may typically stand for doesn't necessarily mean each individual candidate will uphold that ideal.  And what if - hold onto your hats - there are things that each party stands for that I value?  In other words, I may not be a fan of big government, but I believe in helping the poor even at the expense of the filthy rich.  Or I may not agree with abortion on demand, but I do think gay couples have a right to marry.  If I officially say "I am a Republican" or "I am a Democrat", this automatically conjures up all the affiliated stances on various issues, regardless of my actual opinion on each.

Similarly, I've found the trouble with religion.  If I officially say "I am Catholic", the assumption (perhaps even rightly so) would be that I don't believe in using birth control, IVF, gay marriage, and that I pray to different saints based on my needs at the moment.  The holier-than-thou would say that if I disagree with them, then I have no right to call myself Catholic.  But the better question is - why do I want to?  Just to have a label to fall back on?  If the Catholics don't want me, why do I keep trying to justify why I should be allowed to keep calling myself Catholic even though I disagree with several key Catholic social teachings and, what's even more troubling, the major basic tenets of Christian faith.  They are right.  Religiously speaking, I'm no more Catholic than a Quaker or Buddhist is Catholic.

In a way, my Catholicism perhaps is similar to my Polishness.  I still have fond memories of living in Poland.  I still hold to some Polish traditions that are dear to me.  I still speak the language.  But just how Polish am I, really?  I'm not up to par on the latest Polish news, nor do I even espouse to some popular Polish outlooks on life anymore.  I haven't exactly stopped being Polish.  It's just that my Polish identity has faded over the years.  It won't ever totally disappear, and I'm glad for that, but I'll never resettle in Poland again and feel at ease living and working there.  I guess that's the same with my Catholicism, too.

And even my Americanness hasn't exactly simply taken the place of what my Polishness used to be.  I'm glad to be an American because of various reasons, but not because I fully agree with everything "America stands for".  Materialism, keeping up with the Joneses, the whole Savior-complex when it comes to interfering in world events.... I could do without those.  And perhaps my pro-immigration and universal healthcare attitude is enough to make certain Americans tell me to "go back to where I came from", or otherwise that I'm not "American enough".  If I disagree with every private citizen being allowed to carry a weapon, I must not be American.  It doesn't matter that I served in the US Army while some of these gun-happy "patriots" didn't.

If I keep letting people tell me what I can and cannot call myself, I'll no longer be Catholic, American, or a slew of other labels that perhaps don't fit me to a T.  (Feminist?  Not if I'm pro-life.  Mother?  Only if genetically related to my offspring.)

So I'm going to try something new in the New Year.  I'm going to use labels if doing so helps me, and I'm not going to worry if anyone disagrees with my use of the label.  Ideally, I'm going to try try TRY to live label-free.

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