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SNR Episode 14 - A Tree and a Deck of Cards

September 24th, 2009 (03:48 pm)

CBC Radio's science programme "Quirks and Quarks" - link to the September 12th show, "Oceans of Trouble":
Links to various surveys discussing the psychological benefits of being religious:
Religious people are happierhttp://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article3577517.ece
Children benefit from 'spirituality', from an enhanced sense of meaning,  not the practices of religion
Harvard study claiming religious people are better citizens

Amazon.com link to Karen Armstrong's memoir, "The Spiral Staircase"

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Hello, and welcome to episode fourteen of The Naked Soul. I'm Heather Gout. I'm afraid I have been late getting this show produced. Apologies for that; I did take a short break down to the south of England, to Devonshire actually, for a little rest and relaxation. But it gets you out of your routine, doesn't it? You get used to that slower pace and it takes a while to get back into a disciplined routine.


What is it about the month of September? Is it the end of the summer, or the start of the school year? I don't know but there's always something about the autumn that makes me look back to the past. And when I was reminiscing I remembered what happened to me in 1982, when I finished high school. Our school employed a team of guidance counsellors – I think you were assigned to one or the other depending on the alphabetical order of your surname. My counsellor's name was Mrs. Ringuette. I don't remember that we talked often but we must have got to know each other enough, because I do remember how upset she was when she found out that I was going to drop out of university before the first term of my freshman year had finished. At the time I felt there was a conflict between doing my studies and complying with the teachings of the Christian church I'd joined. She was worried, understandably, about how much I wanted to give to the church, and when she asked me why I was sacrificing so much for the sake of it, I told her, “I want answers.”


And she said to me, “There are no answers, Heather. There are only questions.”


I'm so sure there was a longer, deeper conversation hiding behind the short one we actually had. I really wish now that we'd had the longer one. I don't know why we didn't; I wonder if maybe we were both afraid of what might be said. I certainly wasn't as confident as I tried to sound with my quick reply -- “I want answers”. I didn't know the questions, for heaven's sake! But I'm not sure Mrs. Ringuette had had any training to prepare her for dealing with existential angst I've never lost the irritation with her for what she said to me, because it was such a pat, dress rehearsed phrase, the kind of pithy phrase that so often gets thrown at people who are distressed. It's said as if it might solve their problem, but everyone knows from experience that what it really does is stop any discussion that might get emotional, that might take time or be difficult to handle. Am I making any sense? Like when someone tells a bereaved person that time heals all wounds, that kind of comment. The kind that works against any healing process because it just detours away from the pain.


And so Mrs. Ringuette, maybe hoping her choice of words would kill off my silly notions about being religious, actually made things worse. She had detoured away from my pain, and so I had to add her name to the list of people I'd already encountered who couldn't help me. Oh, I'm not saying that her words were so utterly incorrect. Absolute truth, I agree, isn't sitting on a shelf somewhere, boxed up and ready to order. It's not something Amazon could mail to you, and in the end the church turned out to be another one of those things that wasn't any help. But I wish she hadn't concentrated so much on the end of my sentence, on the word 'answers'. I wish she paid more attention to the first part – 'I want'. 'I want' was a plea. 'I want' was admitting I didn't have something important, or I felt I didn't. And what she'd effectively told me was that I would never have it, whatever it was, and I would just have to be happy with that.


I wonder what a school counsellor would do now, if they had to advise another eighteen year old like me? Maybe I'd get a prescription for anti-depressants, which would be a chemical, rather than a verbal way of detouring away from the pain, a chemical way of forcing the brain to accept a situation without answers. It's not hard to see why people choose religion, when you consider some of the alternatives.


But let's face it, some people are just more optimistic than I am. Some people can live day after day in a meaningless universe, and they don't expect answers. They don't ask questions, which solves the problem, they don't even do the kind of thinking that would get close to questions. Fine. But until we can engineer the human brain with some kind of precision, I reckon there will always be a significant number who, like me, have to tough time keeping their heads above all the distressing stuff of life. Like the environment, for example. I subscribe to the CBC Radio science podcast, “Quirks and Quarks”, even though the shows that investigate the damage we are doing to the environment are so depressing. The episode that aired on September 12th was one of those; it was titled “Oceans of Trouble”and was looking at the multiple ways we are damaging marine environments: how chemical fertilisers washed to the seas are creating low oxygen zones where virtually nothing can live, how carbon dioxide is dissolving into sea water and making it slightly more acid, which is bleaching the coral reefs, and the sheer amount of garbage under water, from plastic bags to lost fishing nets. Oh, and falling fish stocks.


It was nearly an hour long show, and by the end of it I felt totally depressed. But it wasn't just me: about three minutes from the end the presenter, Bob McDonald, asked environmental journalist Alanna Mitchell, “...it's not exactly uplifting stuff, and so I guess the question for you is, 'do you feel there's any hope?” And there was a long pause, too long for radio, and during that pause Alanna Mitchell sighed, and then she replied.


I think that as a human species we are capable of much more and so I retain hope...”


And so she saved the show from ending on a negative note, but I wondered, given that long pause and sigh, just how thin and tenuous that hope was. And I also thought, thank god it wasn't me they'd asked, because I might not have been able to haul myself up from despondency and say something nice for the sake of the listeners. Am I the exception to the rule? I can't be, can I?


Well, if I'm not, I'm going to be blunt and say that I often need to do things specifically for consolation, specifically for the maintenance of hope or a sense of meaning because I want to go on living, and being reasonably productive. Now when I was a Christian I was taught to do some specifically 'religious' tasks for this purpose, like praying or reading uplifting passages of scripture. But also I did things that anyone might do, like involving myself in a community service, or getting together with friends. Now that I'm agnostic, it's funny, because you'd think all my forms of consolation would be strictly concrete and practical, that there would be nothing that wasn't one hundred percent grounded in reality. But I've already confessed to a weakness for Facebook games--they aren't so much consolation as pure escapism. But even they qualify a little as a source of consolation. I play them in part for the social interaction, because so many of my friends and family live too far away to visit.


But I also indulge in activities that would be highly suspect to anyone who was strictly materialist, or completely against anything unscientific. I happen to live in a rural part of England and I'm close enough to my place of work to walk there most days. On my way I pass an oak tree. It is not the largest tree along my route, and it doesn't have any distinguishing features, as you will see. If you visit the Naked Soul website at snrpodcast.livejournal.com, you'll see I have posted a photograph. It's just a tree I happen to see twice a day, five days a week. I don't remember exactly when I started to greet it as I passed, but that is how it began. I'd just wave at it, or say hello. Then, some time after that, I began to think about the tree, because trees have been important mythological and psychological symbols for centuries. I'd find myself thinking, for example, about how the root system of a tree must have seemed like another tree growing upside down into the earth, and how this might have given ancient humans their cosmology: the world above ground of the gods in the sky and humans on the ground, and below them another world of dead humans and the gods of the underworld. And also I'd think about the cells in one leaf, and how they wouldn't be aware of the cells in other leaves, or in the roots, and yet all the cells worked in a way that created one system, one organism.


I could go on and on about my tree thoughts. I tried to guess how old the tree might be; I don't know whether there's a way to do that without chopping it down and counting the rings. I certainly felt it was older than me, and I don't know if this makes sense but the fact it had been around so long and was still there, being a tree, became a really settling influence. If I was feeling anxious about work on a particular day I would consider the oak tree, how it sat there through the weather, through the winter and summer, and how it had lost branches, and how any day it might contract a disease or be struck b lightning or removed, but that whatever might happen in the future didn't change how the tree behaved. Now that's irrational, positively, because the tree hasn't got a brain and so can't speculate about the future. But you must understand that I wasn't trying to convince myself that the tree did have a brain. I was using the tree's symbolism as fully as I could for the benefit of my brain, my brain which does worry far too much about everything really.


And this kind of thinking, accumulating over time, has bound me to this tree. So now I don't just greet it; I have my own...well, let's call it what it is: a ritual gesture. Whenever I pass the tree I hold up one hand with the fingers spread apart as far as possible. I imitate the shape of a tree. I have several reasons for doing this, but I won't mention them because I think I may have put off some of my listeners by going this far! But I want to be clear. I don't believe that this oak tree is anything other than a tree. I don't need it to be anything other than a tree. What I want is the fullest possible use of the tree as a symbol. It's my imaginative use of the tree that is having certain psychological benefits, which is why I keep stressing this idea of religion as a form of imaginative play. If religion has psychological benefits, and I've posted some links on the website to various studies suggesting this, then can any of those benefits be achieved by the deliberate, conscious use of the imagination to create meaning?


I'm speculating that they can. And for that reason I also make regular use of tarot cards. Whereas the oak tree provides me with one symbol, the tarot deck contains seventy-nine of them. I don't always accompany a tarot reading with any rituals, but I have done. I've lit candles, concentrated on my breathing, recited mantras and done visualisations of one kind or another. I am aware of the contrivance factor in these things, but I don't have any objection to contrivance as long as all participating parties are conscious of it. A little contrivance, a little theatre, that little suspension of disbelief we make to enjoy a film or a play or a novel which feels like being transported to another place—I think as long as you know what you're doing and you don't stay there too long, it's a good thing. It's a very handy, human skill. Not only do you get relief from anxieties, but frequently I find that the experience will lead to insight – nothing earth shattering, only a bit of perception combined with the emotional diversion that helps with the business of living then and there.


But I wouldn't for a moment suggest that anyone imitate me. One person's source of consolation is just that. I would recommend a memoir published by the religious writer Karen Armstrong, called “The Spiral Staircase”, in which she talks about the years she spent as a nun. Prayer was a big problem for her; she recalls how it never really felt like it was doing anything for her, spiritually speaking. I can sympathise. It never did much for me, though I did it because I'd been told it ought to provide solace and inspiration. The interesting part of Karen Armstrong's book, for me, was when she began studying at Oxford University as an undergraduate. That's where she had the kind of experiences she wasn't getting at her convent. And she got them, experiences of insight, inspiration and consolation when she was doing academic research. In fact, Karen Armstrong's story is really helpful for two reasons. It demonstrates that probably no single activity is guaranteed to give everyone an existential lift. It also quite clearly shows that what we might call 'spiritual' insight and refreshment doesn't need to come from activities that are religious or even a bit suspect like my tree stuff!


I wouldn't want anyone to listen to this podcast and come away with the idea that they need to imitate religion. I'm only trying to say that you could do that, you could invent religious rituals if you wanted to and if you found they did something for you. Maybe to balance things out I should make a podcast episode devoted entirely to testimony from people who listen to The Naked Soul and get their spiritual batteries recharged by walking their dog or decorating cakes or with any luck by doing the job that pays them. Do you think that would be a good idea? If you do, please send me your ideas.


You are always free to leave comments on the website. The address is snrpodcast.livejournal.com; you don't have to be registered with LiveJournal to write something there and anything you post can be anonymous. If you're on Facebook you can search for me by name – Heather Gout – I always accept friend requests from anyone who listens to the show, and if you do that you can send me a message or write on my wall. I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thanks very much for waiting patiently for this episode to be made; I hope you'll join me again next time.