A Spirited Agnostic Wonders:
What exactly are we celebrating?
As a kid, the winter holidays always brought so much excitement, but a bit of unease always clouded my full acceptance of joy. Let’s blame it on uncertainty. The seeds of anxiety were planted on a freezing Christmas Eve when, smooshed between my sisters in the back seat of our station wagon coming home from a party, I received the shocking news that Santa was (as I’d started to suspect) not real. At the time, my only exposure to Christianity was the Sunday evening basketball games in the high school gym where my dad played center for the local Luthern Church men’s team.
Celebrating Christmas and carrying on family traditions (and creating new ones) without strong religious or cultural ties to St. Nicolas has always felt strange. But today, I’m the one who faithfully continues family traditions and seems never to get enough of giving and receiving. Yet sometimes, I still feel like a fraud.
Well, f-#&% that! I say. I love this time of year. Without these celebrations to get us through the darkest, coldest days of winter, I think I’d go crazy.
Winter Celebration What exactly are we celebrating during the winter holidays? I wonder as I think about my bank account and if I”m spending too lavishly on my loved ones while I fill blue mason jars with homemade granola spiced with nutmeg and ginger. As I hang the woven willow wreath that reminds me of my mother, I contemplate the symbolism of the circle in my hand of gathering, the feminine divine, the strength of the twisted boughs, and the smell of mint and dark chocolate. As a spirited agnostic and lover of all things that sparkle, for me, it’s simply a celebration of YOU. And wonder. And my beloved mountains, powder skiing, adventure sledding, sacrifice, the bitter cold, cozy fleece, and another year passing marked by my sweet baby boy’s birthday; he’s now fourteen. Today I am celebrating our bounty, remembering our past, and recognizing all the delicious things in my life – even growing old. Ultimately, I’m celebrating all good things human, and the blanket of love surrounding me.
Don’t forget to celebrate yourself with the gift by letting go of expectations. In reminding you, I am reminding myself to stop cooking, wrapping, and decorating and sit down and snuggle - even if it’s just with a book!
Last-minute Gift Recommendations:
Do you or someone in your life treat “belief” not as a problem to be solved but instead as an open-ended adventure for the mind? Two books I loved this year celebrate, in very different ways, uncertainty, mystery, and the spiritual fulfillment realized by questioning conventional beliefs and being receptive to the wonder of the divine.
Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto by Lesley Hazleton,
This book turned my lifelong unease with topics like celebrating Christmas when I’m not “Christian” on its head by lauding “unknowing” as the key to a meaningful spiritual life. The author, who blogs as the “Accidental Theologist,” starts with “the awareness that humans are not the center of the world,” and suggests that religious dogma out-sources personal responsibility to the divine. On the “relevance of our individual lives,” she concludes:
“To no longer use ‘divine intent’ as an excuse, in the same way fatalists talk of fate … places responsibility directly on us – responsibility for how we act, our relations with others, our society, and our planet.”
In a time when everyone is jockeying to prove that they are “right,” Hazleton illustrates how this threatens our well-being. Instead, she argues, the adventure of “unknowing” is the ultimate privilege.
A Gentle Rain of Compassion by David R. Shlim, MD
I have been so fortunate to know David and his family for over twenty years. I have worked with his wife, Jane, in the Exum Mountain Guides office, attended a handful of Buddhism events David has organized, and watched their children grow up. Still, I never knew the whole story of David’s extraordinary life. The book follows his journey from a young, Jewish recently-graduated- medical student who lacked direction and focus to a life filled with awe, adventure, healing, and spiritual fulfillment through a study of Tibetan Buddhism and training in compassion.
David’s memoir, which reads like an entertaining outdoor adventure journal, brings Buddhist principles and teachings to light in easy-to-grasp ways.
“Perhaps rather than trying to filter all experiences through what I already believed, I could expand what my mind was willing to believe,” Shlim reflects mid-way through his journey. This idea, combined with the understanding (as the book title suggests) of the unlimited potential of every drop of human compassion to douse the fires of anger, was a gift to my hungry mind.
What are you celebrating this season?
Thank you all for joining me on this journey! May your holidays be full of peace and the joy of uncertainty.