“You can’t always get what you want.– from the Rolling Stones hit song
But if you try sometime
You get what you need.”
I was raised in a Catholic household. I would not say “strict,” because I rarely saw my father go near a church and we grew up with a strong foundation on humanities and history. But my mother expected us to go with her to services. I was an altar boy; the concept of sin (and punishment) and following the commandments (with attendant rewards) were firmly entrenched in all of us.
When I left for medical school, I believed that we possessed the one true faith. It was my plan to behave as I believed the early Christians did, so that other people would be so impressed with me that they would want to be Catholics too.
This plan did not last long. I was young. School took a lot of time. My roommate was Jewish. Within a few hours after I met him, I realized that it would be best to leave religion out of our conversations. The exquisite, multidimensional education that my parents and teachers nurtured in me took root. I understood why I had been asked to read all of the history and philosophy. It was not a matter of going to class and regurgitating knowledge. I had been prepared for life.
Over the years I developed what I would call an evidence-based approach to religious matters. I decided that we needed to be nice to each other, not because we would go to Heaven (or be banished to Hell if we failed) but because there was no way that we could survive otherwise. A world without rules would be chaotic and self-destructive. We had to try to help each other out. It was clear to me that those who did good only because they would be rewarded with Heaven later on were not following the spirit of the teachings of Jesus.
There was also the matter of personal satisfaction. It felt much better to be nice than to be a jerk. Whenever I did something nice for someone, something that I did not have to do, I ended up feeling that this deed had helped me more than what it helped the recipient of my “generosity.”
I stopped going to church. In many ways I became resentful of religions. All of them. The concept of miracles, in particular, peeved me. The basic message of all religions is one of love and acceptance. This is crystal clear. Why is it necessary to maintain that some of our ancestors were able to talk to God, or conquer cities without striking a blow, or bring dead people back to life? I felt that we did not need miracles to convince people to believe in the golden rule. I felt, I am ashamed to say, a sense of intellectual superiority to those people naïve enough to think that a man could survive inside a whale for a few days.
Many years passed. I think that for the most part I behaved well. I tried very hard to help; to listen; to understand others. I derived a great deal of satisfaction in doing so. Life rewarded me with a wonderful family of my own and a very successful career. Once I passed my sixtieth birthday and I developed significant (but not serious) health issues I realized that relatively soon it would be me the one with the incurable illness, and my family the ones who would be consoled by my doctor. I was OK with that, and I still felt no need to believe in a higher power, or miracles, or an afterlife. I was at peace.
Things changed when Pope Francis got elected. I began to read his comments; this led me to want to learn more about him. I became a fan. I felt that this leader was a part of my world. That he was encouraging his flock to live the life of the Gospel more than preaching about the rules.
At some point I realized that, as happy and full as my life was, I needed to do some more work on my struggles with faith. I did not feel a sense of urgency or desperation (as do some people when they come close to death). I just thought that it would be nice to polish that last spot in the cabinet.
Since I had much exposure to Jesuits when I was in college, I picked a Jesuit church (St. Matthew on North Sarah) and went to my first Mass in decades. I sat alone in a corner and hoped that no one would notice me (which was hard; this congregation is predominantly African American). I listened to Father Quinn’s sermons, which kept bringing me back every Sunday. I even had lunch with him a couple of times.
He spoke of reconciliation (a big favorite of his) and forgiveness. Of family and community. Of God’s willingness to accept all, no conditions attached. Of course, he emphasized the importance of faith.
This is when I was a bit turned off. I did not need to believe: acting well and living the Word was enough. Why would it make a difference what a person believes in? For sure God did not care.
Then I began to think. I was asking for control. To be able to decide, by myself, how to help and when. I wanted an ethical basis for my life, but I was not willing to admit that there was a higher plan. Then I thought some more. All of my life, at every turn, in every minute, there have always been two constants.
One: there is always someone smarter, or faster, or stronger than I am. I try; I put in a lot of effort, but it does not matter. I will never be the best.
Two: I have minimal control of my life anyway. I have known this for a long time; in fact, one of the chapters in my book addresses this fact. Maybe, it occurred to me, it is best to stop thinking about this fact. Start living it.
I think that the source of my struggles was my childhood catechism. The part that said that God was our father. A man. A man who got angry, who could be persuaded to change His mind. A stranger that had the power to make my life miserable, even if I did not deserve this “test.” A warrior who participated in battles and chose the winning side.
For years I could not reconcile this image with what I wanted to believe in: an all-pervasive power that was engendered by love and grew in strength and influence the more His teachings were adopted. Of course, we do not know. We will never know.
I am still working on this, but what I have this far: the upward spiral of love and good works has no end. It cannot: there will always be someone or something that sets a better example. What lies at the very top? There may be no such thing. In mathematics we are taught the concept of infinity. It cannot be seen, or measured, but it exists (it is just as fascinating to muse about what “zero” means, because this is also an abstract concept that we will never see). We cannot see it or influence it, but does that mean that it is not there? And since I cannot control it, can I just learn to live with it; acknowledge it every day; accept that I respect it and want to be closer to the ideal that it represents?
No; I can’t always get what I want. Is it possible that this is what all of us need?