One Particular Belief System, For Better Or Worse Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity One Particular Belief System, For Better Or Worse

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 191 ~ April, 2013

The month of April, and the coming of spring, always brought excitement to me about the start of baseball season, with Easter a minor blip as a day of worship, or celebration. The emphasis was more on the Easter Bunny than on the crucifixion of Christ, which I’m not even sure my father, the psychiatrist, believed in as an historical occurrence; he certainly never believed in any divine being, or any semblance of a higher personalized power above mankind.

My father wasn’t anti-religion, he simply recognized it more as a central spot for social interaction within a community, one also providing services to those in need. Of course this was before the increased mobility of my generation, the baby boom generation, not to mention the changes caused by the proliferation of the Internet and social media, but during my father’s childhood, and his father was the first in his family to move to a city from a farm, the church was the Sunday meeting place after a week of work, with prayer and religious belief secondary to the act of attending.

I wasn’t sure what religion I was, aside from being a Christian of some sort, until challenged, and corrected, by a born again fellow preparing to become a minister, who told me I wasn’t really Christian because I hadn’t literally, consciously, or internally, turned my life over to Christ.  Instead, I had simply accepted my mother’s example of following the Golden Rule, of trying to do unto others as I would like them to do unto me, not recognizing during childhood that one can be in great trouble depending on whom those others might be. In other words, Christian charity or genuine empathy for a suffering human being, would probably never be appreciated if you were dealing with Charles Manson or Hitler. In any case, both my parents were raised in the Anglican faith and attended the Church of Canada until they were married and moved to New York City from Toronto.

I’m not sure why we were never affiliated with a specific church during my early childhood.  We could have gone to a Protestant or Episcopalian church, but for some reason, we didn’t; I suppose because my father worked six days a week at the time, five days in his office in Manhattan, and then seeing patients on Saturday mornings at our house in Queens, so Sunday was family day, a day of fun, or so I remember my father trying to make it such. We never went to church, but we did go to Horn and Hardart most Sunday evenings, making sure to get home in time for the Walt Disney Show.

I was six when I was baptized, along with my sister who’s a year younger, and my brother whom I’m five and a half years older than. It was in June of the year my other sister was born in August, and it was a spur of the moment decision by my father, prompted by wanting to stop in and say hello to a classmate of his at the University of Toronto who was then a minister living in Philadelphia. I don’t know whether we were in Atlantic City or at the Jersey shore, but the spontaneous visit led to the minister asking something about our religion, and then it came out we had never been baptized, and I remember being up on the third floor of the minister’s house, playing with an enormous, remarkable electric train set up, having a grand old time, only to find myself called down to a chapel and feeling rather strange that a man in a velvet robe was sprinkling water across my head.

I believe we became Episcopalian because that’s the denomination of the minister classmate, but maybe not. We moved to New Jersey the following spring, and at some point, I don’t exactly know when, we became members of the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Engle Street, where my father became close and trusted friends with the reverend there. It was a time of great social upheaval, the sixties, the Civil Rights movement, and St.Paul’s was known for its liberal activism, compared to the more social register atmosphere of the Presbyterian Church, which at the time was a bastion of conservatism and the status quo.

My parents attempted to send me to Sunday school, but I fought against their well-intentioned effort all the way, arguing that I went to school during the week, and that should be enough. Besides, I wanted to play football, basketball, or baseball, depending on the season, and the majority of my first group of friends were Jewish so we could get enough guys for a game on Sunday, whereas we lost two afternoons during the week due to Hebrew School. I was certainly free of St. Paul’s and church by the time I was twelve, and I never looked back, easily getting into the pattern of staying up extremely late on Saturdays and sleeping in on Sunday mornings, which made sense, since it was my day of rest.

In truth, until I started writing this I had never given much thought to where my siblings were in terms of religious conviction. I can only guess. i do know my brother is religious now, a proclaimed Christian, whom I think was confirmed when he was entering his forties. I also know he attends a Bible study group, and whenever adversity arises in his daily life, he believes God is testing his character, and faith, while I have a more random and arbitrarily explanation of such things.

I know both my sisters would go with my mother to St. Paul’s on Christmas Eve at midnight because they liked listening to the choir. I never went to such a service so I’ll accept their word that the singing was beautiful, though I don’t know whether it was mostly hymns or Christmas carols, but I have difficulty imagining a church going crowd singing Jingle Bells on such an occasion, but, of course, I could be wrong.

The sister who’s closest to me in age was confirmed at St. Paul’s in New Jersey when she was thirteen. She has lived in Ontario for many years, just outside Toronto, and attends church regularly, singing in the choir, but I don’t know what church, and I don’t know if she attended before her two children were born.

A phone call to her could clear matters up, but somehow, especially since this is not an academic essay of any sort, it would seem like cheating to me. I know what I know — why pretend otherwise?

Same deal with my other sister, who now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina after spending years living outside of Boston, until the combination of her daughter entering high school and the winters becoming too harsh, prompted a move. Her husband’s of Ukrainian descent, I think, and I also thought he was Catholic, but my brother told me the other day he believes my sister’s husband is Greek Orthodox. Once again, a quick phone call could provide the answer but I’m not sure it makes any difference, my sister is still my sister, and her husband and daughter are still her husband and her daughter, my brother-in-law and my niece.

Over the years, many have told me to “act as if” in terms of believing in God. Act as if what? As if engaging in a pretense will somehow transform me into a true believer of something or other. Perhaps in the face of certain death, or under extreme duress, I might cry out in terror for God to save me, but it hasn’t happened, yet, during the close calls I’ve survived so far. I remember during my late twenties, talking with Harold, a social worker, who told me he found himself “wandering about in the fields of France as a kid of nineteen” in the Army in 1944.  He then described being in a foxhole with another guy who stood up to take a piss.

Harold needed to piss as well, but the other guy was quicker to stand up, and was immediately shot dead. Harold confessed that based on that experience, the compete lack of logic that one should be killed and another not, solely based on who was first to rise and take a piss, he knew there was no God in foxholes and that’s why he was so scared.

I can’t say whether Harold was right or wrong. He also told me, since he was Jewish and first stationed in Arkansas for basic training upon entering the Army, that he actually met some yokels from somewhere or other who were actually surprised he didn’t have a tail, because they had been told that all Jews did, and who knows why, but they believed it.

I do know that when I was a young child, my father was the closest I ever came to believing in a Godlike figure. The power of psychiatry was much more powerful than Christianity could ever be for me. Whether he knew it or not, my father never appeared rattled while I was a kid, and he seemed to have a plausible explanation for everything, That, plus the fact others seemed to revere him, and were always turning to him for advice, or to ask what he thought of things, was pretty impressive. It was an image which only began to dissipate as my own experience started to confirm my initial hesitation to accept my father was flawed. For the longest time, while conscious thought told me one thing, my insecure emotions always caused me to feel I must be wrong when it came to disagreeing with the way my father viewed the world, or wanted it to be.

I didn’t disagree with my father about everything, and his response to some things was actually quite understandable. He was at the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association one year and a psychiatric colleague came rushing up to him with a noticeable smile of enthusiasm, one which made his face look as if it was glowing beneath the surface without much else behind.

“I’ve become very spiritual,” the psychiatrist blurted to my father.

“I’m not sure what that means,” my father responded.

The other psychiatrist seemed confused for a moment, then answered, “I’m at one with the universe.”

To which, my father said, sensibly, I thought, “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Even though we weren’t raised Catholic, my brother had a good observation when Pope Paul II came to visit New York City. Neither my brother or I could understand all the commotion, all that multiplying momentary pilgrims crowding the streets and surrounding the Pope, as if it was a scene from A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles, which I didn’t understand either, the crowds, and fans, that is, not the popularity of the Beatles.

My brother, given his new found religious spirit, would never criticize the Pope, which goes to show how dominant my father was in my brother’s consciousness when my brother observed, “We don’t need the Pope. Then hesitated. “We have Dad.”

He was right in a sense, my father did stand out when compared with religious belief, at least for me, in a sort of Henry XIII way. Take what you need, leave the rest, the way of the cafeteria Catholics, though in the final analysis, my father preferred  not to even go to the cafeteria, but instead, to dine where he wanted.

Despite my father’s brilliant mind, and his supposed understanding of human behavior, he was terrified of death for most of his life, which I can understand, though unlike him, I don’t think I’d be desperately trying to get a heart transplant at the age of eighty. It was probably for the best that my father died, without having time tot dwell on the moment, of a sudden, massive heart attack, while having a martini, or some such drink, in the company of his psychiatric nurse companion, a horrible woman referred to by us, his children, as “the social worker.”

There was no church service, or even funeral, when each of my parents died. My mother, who stoically faced and accepted she was dying of breast cancer, and wasn’t concerned with desperate attempts to prevent the inevitable, was taken straight to a funeral home, where she was cremated, my two sisters receiving her ashes. My mother always said she wanted to “exit the stage quietly” and actually meant it, said it with true conviction. My father was angry with us, particularly me, because we wouldn’t participate in an elaborate memorial service he had planned, which would have completely negated what my mother wanted. We wouldn’t do it, and he couldn’t do it, because how would he explain the absence of us, the four children, whom my mother lived for and loved unconditionally? And that’s not to mention that during the last nine months of my mother’s life, my father never left Manhattan to come back to the house in New Jersey to see her.

The grand memorial service was reserved for my father, organized and staged by the social worker, whom he had married shortly after my mother died without his children’s knowledge. The service was held at the Canadian Club in Manhattan, off Fifth Avenue in sight of Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, which I thought was further ironic because my father only was accepted as a member on the recommendation of my mother’s father when we first moved to New York City. There was even a program, and the service was attended by a fair number of psychiatric luminaries. I only heard that after the fact since none of us, the children, were invited, which was okay, because I’m pretty certain none of us would have gone, though I can’t be sure about my brother because of his belief in the ritual of penance.

So, it’s Easter, resurrection day, the holiest day of the year for Christians, and I have no problem with that, still believe in Christian values, and am happy for others who are comfortable with their respective belief systems. In my case, however, the NCAA basketball tournament means more at the moment, though, as usual, once again, I will watch King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter, on television, despite having seen it many times and knowing the ending with never change.