“If it was good enough for my parents and their community, then it’s good enough for me.”
This comforting idea can apply to many things like where you live, what you wear, what you eat and drink, and what you do for work or entertainment. The traditionalist approach can apply to weightier matters too, like how you think and behave, what are your core values and beliefs, including political and religious (or non-religious) beliefs. It can apply in turn to how you school and raise your own kids.
“My parents were like this, and they suffered for it. It held them back; left them at a disadvantage. I’m not going to be like them, or their people. I’m going to think and act differently, make up my own mind.”
This is the alternative viewpoint, and can apply to the same parameters of appearance and behaviour, values and beliefs. At its most extreme, in rejecting something, you are left identifying with its opposite. Raised to support liberal politics, you become a staunch conservative. Made to attend religious services and instructed in a faith tradition in childhood, you become an avowed atheist as an adult. These are just a couple of examples.
The two positions are not that different. In terms of stages of spiritual development, they are both relatively rigid: one conformist (stage three), and the other anti-conformist, only partially free of conforming, in orbit around it, so to speak, without the energy, impetus or directional guidance to be fully released from its gravitational pull.
The anti-conformist position is effectively between stages three and four. To go beyond, fully into stage four and further, will involve a complete and permanent change. It will involve letting go of past attachments and allegiances. Such a transformation may occur gradually or abruptly. Something makes you think, “There must be something more to my life than this”. It is the beginning of a re-appraisal, a quest; and it harks back to the big questions we started this series with, “Who am I really?”, and, “Who are we as a people?”
Relatively few among any population get this far in early adult life. We quickly grow convinced that we cannot afford to spend time and effort on something that, on the face of it, seems unnecessary. We sort of know who we are by this time. We have jobs to find, work to do, money to make, and families to raise. We have success to achieve, and failure to avoid. These seem much more important.
Nevertheless, seeds of dissatisfaction very often remain. Deep inside we remain incompletely fulfilled. We may even come to feel trapped.
Ten true stories of spiritual development
In her book ‘Faith Beyond Belief’ (Quest Books, Illinois, 2012) Margaret Placentra Johnston writes ten true stories of, “Good people who left their church behind”. The first four (a Mormon, a Muslim and two from Christian church backgrounds) questioned their religion and reasoned themselves out of religious belief altogether, subsequently labelling themselves as ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’ or ‘secular humanist’.
Typically, someone like this will say they have no need of a mythical supernatural being, or rules from any church to influence their behaviour. They think of religion as superstition and nothing more; but one, at least, “Was haunted by the thought that I was betraying my community”. He was uncomfortable, and said he went through a period searching for an identity, with no clear idea about who he was becoming.
The remaining six were all people from Christian backgrounds, but of significant variety: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Non-conformist and Russian Orthodox. In common for them was a continuation of the search for identity, until each realized a new form and degree of spiritual maturity, one that was not dependent on any particular religious formulation.
If these good folk share any one aspect, it relates to enduring and profiting from adversity. The result is a deep faith that things turn out how they’re meant to, usually for the best, and that life is about living in the present moment, accepting whatever befalls you. They live out their lives in love and gratitude, with kindness and hope in their hearts. Their stories are truly inspiring.
Spirituality may be the ‘active ingredient’ of religion, but it is not necessary to have a religious background to react against. Any strong set of convictions, values and traditional behaviour seems to work, including a strong set of liberal attitudes and a fixed idea that ‘anything goes’. Whenever a person begins to feel they have outgrown the ways of their parents, no longer comfortable with the traditions of their community, their quest and transformation begins.
The question we will look into next time is, “How can we go from there towards a robust sense of self-worth, greater calm and contentment?”
Copyright Larry Culliford
Larry’s books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality’, ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness’ and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide’ (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).