Life After Mom
Not long after my mom died I concluded I had to write something with the title “Life After Mom.” I had to explain the before and after of my life, my beliefs, my direction. I let my mind ponder through the holidays.
Totally without any planning today I wrote what needed to be written. The following essay began as a response to an email to a new friend telling about my history and beliefs and morphed into what it is now. I re-wrote the letter to the friend and revised the rest into this work. (And I’ve revised it again having read it out loud and found some terrible writing!)
I will at some point expound further on these thoughts but for now this is what I want to say about….
Life After Mom
Once upon a time I wrote a book called The Lies, The Truth, The Way. I wrote the book to chronicle my journey from the bottom of the pit of despair to a place where I could actually face the world again. A few years ago I had a particularly traumatic experience involving “Good Christians” who abandoned me to fate as so many Good Christians do when faced with personal difficulties. I crashed and burned, emotionally and spiritually. I was overwhelmed with horrid emotions, fear, hatred, despair, unlike I’d ever experienced.
Had it not been for my children I may never have recovered. At that point I did not care for myself at all but I worried about my kids. How could I teach them anything when I didn’t believe anything? What kind of life will they have if all daddy can say is, “do what you want, life sucks and then you die!” They did, in fact, learn that phrase from me during those months.
For my kids’ sake I knew I had to drag my rear out of the hole. I started reading and studying religions. I concluded that while there’s plenty of doubt about the here-after and spirituality and what is “right,” there is a way of life our Creator expects us to live, all of us, above and beyond anything any single religion teaches.
I found validation for my theory in the fact that moral codes and belief systems are similar all around the world in hundreds of cultures and many different religions. Most striking were the similarities between Buddhist morality and Christian belief and between the teaching of Gautama and Jesus. If someone read Jesus’ words and those of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha side by side they might conclude one came from the other. There are those who believe such is the case, that Jesus was influenced by Buddhism which began five hundred years earlier. I believe the two are similar not because one came out of the other but because they both reveal the nature of the Creator.
I decided to write a book. In it I point out the fallacies of Christianity, explain the Truth as I see it, and expound on “The Way” we should all live, based upon what the Creator has taught. By the time I finished the book I was calling myself a Buddhist / Gentile Christian. (I specified Gentile because while I continued to accept the Gospels and New Testament as valid I rejected the Judeo-Christian idea.) Later I dropped the “Christian” part and just called myself Buddhist/Gentile follower of Jesus. I recognized that the historical Jesus and the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) taught virtually the same thing. History reveals a much different picture of first century Christianity and the person called Jesus than the modern Christian church teaches. For a time I followed the teachings of Jesus and Gautama in parallel.
Eventually, though, I recognized that clinging to the teachings of Jesus was merely clinging to my past. I recognized that I was holding on to the Jesus part for reasons other than my own spiritual journey. My family, friends, and the community are ultra Christian. Throwing in mention of Jesus once in a while made me more acceptable to them.
My mom’s illness and eventual passing had a big impact on the way I believe. Some of it was positive and some, most would say, was negative. In the beginning of her decline I started examining my own attitudes and actions, the way I dealt with the situation of having a terribly ill parent and how to balance that with responsibilities at home. I recognized I needed to make a stronger effort to follow what Gautama taught. I also recognized that while Buddhism provides answers to my questions regarding how to live, how to deal with mom, how to face death, Christianity offers nothing but platitudes and empty promises.
The worse mom’s condition became the more I turned to Buddhism. There came a point where I dropped the whole notion of following Jesus. As I watched my family struggle and falter within their Christian faith I. I could see that while the teachings of Jesus might be very valid and beautiful they’re so bound up, misinterpreted and such an integral part of a religion that ultimately causes far more harm than good in people’s hearts that there’s just no way to extract a true “Jesus” from the mix. So last fall I at last clearly stated that I am not a “Christian,” I am a Buddhist.
The last month mom lived was a bit of an epiphany for me. I have a brother and two sisters, all devout Christians. None of them could “handle” dealing with mom’s crisis. She needed someone to stay with her continually. For much of the time she was not coherent and for more than a week she was psychotic, completely out of her head, combative, in need of constant watching. Day and night I stayed with her, giving her assurance, promising she’d not be alone, making sure she didn’t rip IV tubes and her NG tube out. She would pull off her clothes and I’d cover her up. I cleaned up her messes and held her while she threw up all over me. It was a very difficult time. I hate that mom went through that but I am forever thankful I could be there for her.
My siblings could not muster the strength to relieve me at all. My oldest sister had come from northern Arkansas to stay with her. I left mom’s room one day expecting her to be with mom. She took one look at mom and ran off. In the couple hours I was gone mom’s incompetent nurse let her fall out of the bed and tear all of her tubes out. The next evening my wife tried to fill in for me so I could go home to rest. She woke me up early in the morning saying I had to get back, they could not handle mom. We put mom into ICU just so I could get a bit of rest and then she went back to a room where I stayed day and night until she was transferred to inpatient Hospice and eventually passed away. I was there to the very end.
Through this event I found great strength in Buddhist teaching. My family were all very surprised at how I handled the crisis, at the strength I showed, at my calm and ability to care unlike I ever had before. I not only validated the path I’m on for myself but also in the eyes of my Christian family. Before this event my Buddhism was just another “weird” thing I was into, just words. But my beliefs sustained me and proved themselves valid.
When I first started learning about Buddhism I was drawn to the practical teachings of Gautama. I have studied and read about the many sects or schools of Buddhism and if I were to label myself at the moment it would be Theravada, more or less, though I have not been meditating lately. Christianity never helped with the nuts and bolts of every day living. Nowhere is there a consistent, definitive “this is how to deal with every situation” explanation. Oh, sure, there is a plethora of books, doctrines, rules, beliefs, all different, all dependent upon the particular denominational point of view. I have been a Baptist, a Methodist and an Assemblies of God believer. My wife was raised Nazarene. I’ve studied quite a few other denominations. There’s no “this is how it’s done” methodology in any of them, just suggestions to read the Bible, follow the “spirit,” or “trust in God for guidance.” I struggled all the time with those instructions. I’ve known hundreds of people who also struggled, from ministers to new converts. I never did nor has anyone I’ve ever known made those instructions work effectively.
When I read the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path I said, “hey, this is it!” No fiddling around with a book of myths, no waiting on the “spirit,” no admonition just to “believe” and “God will work it out” or any of that. Buddha just said, “this is life, life is suffering, we get past it and here’s how….” Yes!
Religion always focuses on things beyond every day living. Some denominations more than others provide a little help and guidance for daily living but even that is wrapped up in a spiritual blanket. Somewhere along the line there’s always gaps that get filled in with “trust God” or “the Spirit will guide.”
The “saving grace” of Christianity is “saving grace.” Because we’re “sinners” and imperfect and fallible and we just CAN’T get it all right. We have the assurance, says Christianity, that none of it matters as long as we speak a few specific words, claim a particular belief, and get “saved.” So the incentive to get it right every time evaporates in the excuse, “I’m saved by grace….” Of course Catholicism and some other Christian sects sing the song a little different but it is still the same tune. Even Universalists have a fiddle in the band.
Gautama, however, is entirely practical. He said life is suffering, suffering is caused by ignorance, get rid of ignorance and end suffering! Just do it! No excuses, no waiting on the “spirit,” no searching for the right verse, no racing to the Christian book store for the latest twist on how to live, and no copping out by saying, “oh, well, I’m not perfect, I’m just forgiven!” The Four Nobel Truths are as solid as can be. “Religion” is not relevant to them. All that comes before and after our life is not really relevant, either. Whether one accepts Gautama’s assumptions about karma and reincarnation or whether one believes in a heaven or even in nothing beyond, the Four Nobel Truths are infinitely practical and functional as guides to our daily existence.
As mom grew worse and suffered more I recognized that the only way to deal with her situation was to deal with it. There are no handbooks on how to care for a parent dying of an intestinal blockage and cancer. There’s no scripture references that explain what to do when our normally loving and very modest mother is cursing me and ripping her clothing off. There’s no sermon to explain how to keep an NG tube down a throat or how to irrigate a peg tube stuck in someone’s stomach. Gautama didn’t give instructions either, of course, but what he did give is excellent guidelines that work in all situations without the necessity of some kind of spiritual “guidance.” He says we are responsible for following them by choice. See suffering? Fix it. Whatever needs to be done, just do it. This is how I interpret the Four Nobel Truths and the Eight Fold Path. Don’t wait for the spirit to move or waste your time seeking the “right” thing. You know the right thing. Get it done.
I believe in a Creator. Maybe I should say that I believe there IS a Creator rather than I believe “in” one. When someone uses the word “in” as in “belief IN God, they usually misinterpret the phrase to mean “I believe in a Deity” such as the Christian or Muslim or Jewish God or maybe even a Hindu “god.” I don’t. Not the way most deists (those who believe IN a deity) do. I believe the Creator is absolutely beyond our ability to comprehend or pigeonhole in the way religions do their “God.” I do not know nor am I obsessed with the Creator’s “omniscience, omnipresence or omnipotence.” What difference does it make, whatever the Creator might be he/she/it is far more powerful than we are. That’s enough for me.
There are shadows of a Creator in the beliefs of all religions but if there is a Creator it must be universal and its message to humankind—if there is one—must be written into our psyche rather than expounded exclusively in a book or religious sect. I believe there IS (was?) a Creator, there is a universal message, and that message can be discovered by anyone who seeks it. I believe the message is that we as humans are different because we were made different. Our purpose is to live according to a set of principals that rise above our biological nature, the principals found in but almost never the foundation of world religions, with the exception of Buddism.
The principals are universal. They are found buried in religious dogma the world over. They are best encapsulated in the Four Nobel Truths. Jesus taught them quite clearly, too. It is this similarity between Buddhism and Christianity I most appreciate. Don’t give me platitudes, don’t make excuses, don’t insist it takes a “spirit” or that the hand of “God” must be in something. Don’t insist I “pray” about it, have faith or believe. Just give me a way to get things done on this earth, a way to deal with people in everyday situations, a practical teaching I can apply across the board. If I can quote a single statement Jesus made it was that he gave to Peter: “feed my sheep!” If you love me, Peter, he said, get with it!
The only thing I’ve ever really asked of religion is how to live. Nothing less or more. A fella named Siddhartha Gautama sought the same thing, decided to find truth or die in the effort, and found Truth. His discovery is by no means exclusive but his teaching is the most excellent and precise teaching on the subject. (I tend to believe Jesus’ teachings were probably very close but the record of what he taught was destroyed in the early centuries when self-serving men took control of Christianity and used it as a political force.)
There comes at last the question of “before” and “after.” Is Gautama right? Is Christianity right (assuming a universalism interpretation of Christianity)? Are we mere animals misguided in the belief there’s “something more?” There are many, many ideas but no proof one way or the other. Break from the practical world, the world we know and live within, and in an instant we move from the absolute to the relative, from the solid truth of our existence as humans to an unprovable thesis of immortality. My favorite writer in all the world, William Shakespeare, got it right. He said beyond our reality lies an “undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns.” It does indeed “puzzle the will.” Religion gives an unprovable explanation that validates its own existence but can present no solid proof it is right.
Few are the individuals involved in spirituality and religion who are entirely willing to say, “I really have no clue what happens when we die or where we came from. And I don’t really care.” I am one of those few. Religion gives explanations about what existed before our birth and goes far, far beyond our point of death. Any and all religions gleefully insist “this isn’t all there is.” But placing so much attention on the hereafter belittles life on earth. Belief in an eternity with a “whole heart” always makes eternity more important than present time. It skews our point of view. Christians and followers of other religions might say it’s a good thing, knowing there’s a “heaven” or whatever. I say obsession with heaven cheapens life on earth, a life Christianity claims is precious because it was created by and for “God.”
There is a very good reason for a Creator to keep us in the dark about what comes before or after. It is precisely that were we to know for sure there’s life after death this life would seem less significant. Who cares what we do, whether we sacrifice self or not, when in the end it might not matter? Our great tragedy as a species is that we’ve let that happen anyway. We’ve allowed religion to cheapen life on earth. We’ve taken the focus off what our Creator placed in us to do as humans and replaced it with an assortment of rules, dogma, or total mistruths, misinformation and misdirected beliefs.
I have questions. Why is it that we as humans prefer to lower ourselves to being educated animals and feed our biological urges at the expense of ourselves or others? Why is it so hard for us to recognize the incredible simplicity of what Gautama said, that life is suffering caused by ignorance? Why can’t we recognize, too, that we cause ourselves incredible suffering by practicing selfishness? I have no answers.
People just don’t seek truth and even when it whacks them on the nose they ignore it and chase ignorance. I am different from the crowd in many ways and one of them is that I have an insatiable need to know truth and a burning desire to follow it. In Buddhism I have found truth. I shall follow it. I will take the Four Nobel Truths completely to heart, make them part of my total existence, and strive to follow the Eight Fold Path. There is nothing spiritual in my decision. I do not follow Buddhism “by faith. I follow Buddha by conscious, deliberate, rational choice. Vulcans would be proud of me (if pride wasn’t an emotion!).
Thus from the end of mom’s days to the end of mine my goal is and shall be to obey truth. I shall strive for selflessness, offer compassion, choose to forgive absolutely, live for peace, love without reservation. I shall do all I can to alleviate suffering. I shall work to the goal of doing no harm. I won’t sit around worrying about what I’m not able to do. I’m not out to save the whole world, merely to affect my own world in as positive a way as I possibly can. I’ll live in each day without guilt over yesterday’s blunders or worry over tomorrow’s problems.
The “undiscovered country?” I’ll leave that to the Creator’s discretion. I am persuaded that the principals embodied by the Four Nobel Truths are “endowed by our Creator.” Since those truths involve love, forgiveness, selflessness, peace, etc., I assume that the nature of the Creator reflects those values. And since it is entirely up to the Creator to determine my fate after this life (belief in karma notwithstanding) I conclude that whatever life that exists after this one (or the ultimate existence at the end of our karmic cycles) must involve those values and will not be bad and I should not worry.
If I am incorrect we’re probably all screwed. Either way, the Four Nobel Truths make the most sense to me and I will follow them. Faith is a good thing when you can get it. Hope may be the cure for the common cold. But love, the thing that kept mom believing in me when I was rotten and that kept me by her side when she was rotten to me, love in all, love by choice, love without end and without measure, of “these three,” love is all I need.
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