I am not religious. I haven’t attended church on a regular basis since I was about fifteen years old. To that point I was a Roman Catholic. I had gone through Confirmation and First Holy Communion. I even tithed, intermittently anyway. There was a certain comfort in childhood in attending church on Sundays, going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, or being smudged with ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Mom was a devout Catholic and I know she wanted her children to be the same. I think it’s safe to say that none of us turned out as such. Because Dad was not a Catholic I did not face much pressure as I began drifting away from church. I know Mom wasn’t happy, but there was no anger. She just looked sad. I never spoke to her about my reasons and she never asked. She died of breast cancer six years later.
What it came down to was unhappiness. I seldom felt really, truly joyful as a child and a young teen. Doing all the right things in my church never made any difference. Happy times always seemed to be experienced through a filter of haze. While I had a few close friends, many of my peers teased me, especially as I began to gain weight through my obsession with junk food and television. Thankfully, time has helped me understand what I now believe caused that hazy filter. Depression.
About ten or so years ago, listening to my future wife describe her own symptoms and experience with depression I realized it sounded much too familiar. I had never had a name for it until then, had no way of asking for support because I didn’t understand and I feared being judged.
A few years earlier, after months of the worst symptoms, I described my experience to my doctor. He had no clue whatsoever. No diagnosis. Nothing. I went back to the same doctor after learning about depression, and asked him if I might have depression. He gave me a brief questionnaire, reviewed it, and gave me a prescription. That first prescription actually made my symptoms worse, but things have gotten better over the years. I’ve since changed health care providers.
I could not even begin to tell you how many people have tried to draw me into their religion over the years. My thin veneer of normalcy did not conceal my core of sadness, making me an obvious target. Let’s start with the Hare Krishna in San Francisco in 1974 when I was seventeen who called me a “far-out guy.” I walked away with a book I didn’t want and less money than I started with, but I was too polite to say no. Then there was the time a high school buddy and I were approached outside the Seattle Scientology office, and asked to take a “personality test.” When they found out we were under age they quickly moved on. There have been more Jehovah’s Witnesses than I can begin to count. Once, a JW woman came to my parents’ house offering literature. Strangely, I came to know her several years later as the bride to be of my step brother, also a JW. Nice enough people, but why do their churches tend to be window-free? Not a good fit for claustrophobics. I sat next to a Mormon missionary on a Greyhound during my freshman year in college. Once he knew there was no chance of me converting, we were able to discuss music for the rest of the trip. When I was thirty I ended a seven year friendship because he could not stop proselytizing. I had been one of his groomsmen. I question that decision to this day, but I feel talked down to anytime people treat me as though I’ve had no experience with or knowledge of their religion. Ultimately, it wasn’t religion that helped me take the first step on the road to wellness, it was knowledge.
Then there are the people who simply practice their beliefs with no expectation that those around them be anything other than what they are. If anyone will bring me back to church it is these people. They treat non-believers like human beings, not objects to be manipulated. They lead with their joy. They live their lives fully and meaningfully, setting an example which your average televangelist cannot. They will never carry garishly colored signs with cruel messages at the funerals of fellow Americans who gave their lives in hopes of preserving freedom of speech. You won’t see them blowing themselves up in a crowded public space on the evening news. And they won’t beg for your money to support their “ministry” on channel 96 at 2 a.m. More than anything else, they won’t call for a “holy war” or burn heretics and witches, real or imagined, at the stake.
During my most recent depression flare-up I made a 40 mile drive to visit with an old friend. I made a point of it because I knew the support of friends and family is an important element in the treatment of this illness. My friend is the minister of a Presbyterian church in an urban area. I couldn’t have predicted such an outcome for him thirty-five years ago. As we enjoyed lunch at a neighborhood cafe he listened patiently to my story and was very supportive. Not once did he suggest that I make any spiritual changes in my life. He simply affirmed my feelings and concerns. After lunch we drove back to his church. I had brought along my camera equipment because I wanted to take some pictures of the interior of the beautiful church. He left me there as he headed off to an appointment. I stayed another thirty minutes or so, inside a church of my own volition, not as a guest at a wedding, or a mourner, or tourist, for the first time in almost forty years.