I tend to say, “It’s okay,” a lot. I think that was my way of finding acceptance for what is. But acceptance is not the same as saying something is okay. And I think I want to find better words.
JC was one of my very best friends. A brother, really. We’d been through a lot together, and when he died it turned my world upside down. The year after his death was filled with peaceful highs and tragic lows, and I learned so much about myself and my beliefs.
Prior to his death, JC had been caught in the cross-fire of opposing beliefs. One side of his family believed his cancer would be healed through natural healing and special energy machines and the other side of his family had experience with his particular type of cancer and wanted to get him into a good cancer treatment program at a hospital. He’d tell us how torn he was sometimes, and in the end, he never did either treatment fully enough to see results. What started as a curable cancer took his life in less than a couple of years.
As I processed everything that happened, I found myself being angry at some of the people in his life, including myself. Their beliefs had caused a perfect storm that directly led to the death of my brother, and I let it happen because I was afraid of contradicting their beliefs. I blamed certain people for his death. Most of the time, I just plain hated them. Other times, I tried to let it go and just accept it for what it was. As long as I wasn’t around these people, I was good. But the very thought of having to entertain their company again made me shake with panic. As the years went on, I let go of a lot of that anger, but I couldn’t say what happened was “okay”.
Recently, as I’ve studied the work done on doxastic responsibility (responsible belief), I’ve seen that our beliefs are mostly the brain’s way of making sense of the world, and that we largely do not and cannot choose our beliefs. We can, however, hold them loosely and responsibly as we see the fruit that those beliefs produce. I hadn’t thought about the conditions surrounding JC’s death for a while, and then, all at once, I saw clearly the irresponsible beliefs that killed him. I not only saw what they were but where they came from and how they were supported. I couldn’t unsee it. I couldn’t make excuses for it. And the anger returned. With vengeance.
This time, my anger wasn’t directed at people. Most of us are victims of the psychological programming of the organizations, institutions, and systems we were born into. Accountability for our beliefs is tempered by our own trauma and subsequent inability to look at our beliefs responsibly. No one gets to know the exact ratio of conditioning to culpability. Judgement about another’s responsibility must be mostly withheld. But the beliefs themselves, those can and must stand trial. Their fruit must be tested, and the lessons learned must be shared and incorporated into responsible action going forward. So, this time I found myself angry at the religion that planted and watered the beliefs that killed my brother.
No one person is to blame for what happened, but there are bits and pieces of accountability all along the way that led to a good man losing his life. Including my own. And the religion that irresponsibly instructed us in arrogant rightness holds the greatest share. You can’t promote a fundamental belief of one’s own exclusive correctness without producing dogmatic certainty that places beliefs above the actual effect those beliefs have on people. And that kind of prioritizing of beliefs over humanity, in the face of real uncertainty and evolving education, leads people to choose old beliefs over new experientially-informed ways of helping each other. It leads to an arrogant clinging to old wine instead of drinking the new wine God is constantly pouring out on humanity. It turns humanity’s natural affinity for diversity, inclusion, and compassionate love into an enemy instead of one of the universe’s greatest teachers. And it marginalizes God’s children. It shames them. It even kills them.
As I spun in my anger, I watched the day slip away and I eventually went to bed. I tossed and turned that night, and every time I startled awake the word “forgiveness” came to my mind. It felt absurd and I’d just go back to sleep. That must have happened at least five times, but when I woke up in the morning I had remarkable clarity. The word that had annoyed me all night made sense.
Forgiveness isn’t erasing the past. It isn’t forgetting, or burying, what happened, making excuses for it, or writing a new, more comfortable story about it. Forgiveness isn’t saying that everything was okay. It’s saying that it was distinctly not okay, and that’s why we will remember. We can forgive reality for being exactly what it is, and then softly hold it with us as we brave a new future with our new way of being. We allow the anger, for as long as it has something to say, and we let that anger teach us how we can use what happened to make the world better. Then we can walk confidently forward into a brighter future leaving the anger with the event. Forgive and remember.
And the same goes for grace. Grace doesn’t erase. It honors and anoints our experiences for our benefit. It removes the shame, fully accepting the reality of what this life is, and ordains every moment as the beginning of a new path forward into the light. Grace doesn’t make everything go away, it makes everything useful, beautiful, and holy.
Specific irresponsible religious beliefs directly led to the death of my best friend and brother. That is not okay. But I forgive it for what it is, and am committed to letting it inform my future walk with humanity. I will have grace for it, and let it be both the curse and the blessing that it is. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever had to go through, and the thing with the most potential to liberate me and others from dangerous dogmas. It’s not okay, but I accept it as what is, and I insist we do better.