Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"I Am Who Am: A Photographic Eye to Identity" by Jennifer Scully

The mere topic of identity is already an extremely controversial discussion based on religion, philosophies, nationalities and heritages. For many, religion is a major part of their character, while others exist with no such presence in their lives. Religious and nonreligious people have more in common than one would think. Both parties believe in something; secular or not. A nonreligious person may adopt psychological outlooks into their lives just as a religious-oriented person may adopt catechismal dogmas. In both situations, however disparate, those beliefs become an element of their identity as being in this world. Despite the exhausted trend of highlighting differences in each other, we are all one human race. As Walt Whitman says in "Song of Myself," Section 1, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman).

As a person who was raised in the Catholic Church, I knew little about other religions and ways of thinking. My entire career as a Catholic  school  student had consisted of being forced fed parochial  ideologies. As expected, I regurgitated all this information onto meaningless tests and quizzes. Though I had learned and retain these things, I never digested any of it. The whole objective of schooling children in “their” religion is not only to be knowledgeable, but develop a deep faith as well. Teachers, parents and clergy just assume that, with the religious education, comes the faith. Despite this, I never had faith. I never truly believed in anything I was being taught. Perhaps I did not ponder enough or I just did not care. Either way, I have gone through life sitting in church every Sunday. And for what reason? I did not gain anything from it nor did I lose anything. No harm no foul, right? Not until quite recently did I begin to open my eyes and wake up to the disturbing reality of the Catholic Church. ‘We don’t hate homosexuals, but we can’t allow them to marry because it's contrary to natural law.’ Barring someone from being themselves and depriving them of the happiness they deserve just based on their sexual orientation seems like enough to label the Church as homophobic. This is just one of many examples of  my realizations about the truth of the Church. The word “catholic” alone means something that is “of interest to all” and has “sympathies with all.” I find that rather ironic. 

Homophobia, prevalent in the Church, stems from  fear of unknowing. Within a book called The Four Agreements, the author Don Miguel Ruiz explains an ancient Toltec (Mexican) wisdom. He discusses a conscious relationship between ourselves and the world. These entities are referred to as “dreams.” There exists our “personal dream” and the “outside/society dream.”  Though very separate, these dreams feed into each other.  The outside dream “includes all of society’s rules, its beliefs, its laws, its religions, its different cultures and ways to be, its government, schools, social events and holidays” (Ruiz 2). On the other hand, the personal dream is “what you believe, all the concepts you have about who you are, all the agreements you have made with others, with yourself, and even with God” (Ruiz 16). Everyone’s personal dreams are different yet we all live bound by the society dream. According to the Toltecs, we make agreements throughout our lives without even being aware. When we are born, we are given a name. We did not have a chance to choose that name, but we agree to it anyway. It is the same with religion. As children, our parents may bring us up in a certain religion and without choice, we agreed to it. As we grow older, we are able to choose for ourselves. Despite this, “the agreement is so strong that even if we understand that concept of it not being true, we feel the  blame, the guilt, and the shame occur that if we go against these rules” (Ruiz 11).

In regards to my Catholic upbringing, I feel that exact way. I have personally rejected all of the teachings, but the people who raised me have not. In refusing to attend mass on Sundays, my dad was extremely disappointed. When I told him that I no longer identify as Catholic, he was perplexed, asking “what about your faith?” He could not understand that I never had faith. I started to feel guilty. I did not only want to dissatisfy him but, most especially, my grandfather. Due to the fear of shame, my grandfather still is unaware of my parting with the Church. Being the case, I cannot be honest about myself and must censor my (lack of) beliefs. Fear is everywhere. Fear controls the outside dream (violence, addictions, injustices), thus controlling the personal dream. Concerning the Church, “the whole dream is based on false law. Ninety five percent of the beliefs we have stored in our minds are nothing but lies, and we suffer because we believe all these lies” (Ruiz 13). Lies such as a gay person is a bad human being or that women should be suppressed (for patriarchal benefit) are perpetuated by the Catholic Church. This incites fear in both the oppressor and in the oppressed, furthering a division of  the human race.

In The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, author Alan Watts refers to one of the biggest taboos known to humankind: sex. Many parents avoid or hesitate telling their children about the source of all life. It is so taboo that Watts mentions a Japanese tradition in which the parents give their children what is called a “pillow book” instead of informing them correctly. The book simply depicts sexual manners, leaving the reader uneducated about the biological and spiritual aspects. Some may compare this book to the likes of pornography or other “dirty” material. This not only produces ignorant humans, but also maintains sex as a taboo. A similar situation is present in the Catholic Church. Growing up, I always had to dress nicely for Sunday mass. And when I say “dress nicely,” I mean covering up. Showing “too much skin” was inappropriate for that atmosphere, for I was in the presence of God. Physical modesty is valued, to say the least. Thinking back now as an educated (and religiously detached) eighteen-year-old woman, it is almost disturbing. If little girls are  told to “cover up” by  (usually) older men, wouldn’t that suggest that these girls are being sexualized? Most young girls are unaware of sex yet they are already victims of the taboo. This unwritten rule of modesty preserves the objectification of females. Throughout my schooling, I was always taught that sex was essentially bad and sinful. If it is so shameful, then why does the Church perpetuate it?

Religion is hardly a basic belief system. Watts describes it as being “divisive and quarrelsome.” Under the guise of a faithful international congregation, he calls religion as simply a “form of one-up-manship.” This is especially prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church. It is almost as if the entire religion is based on exclusivity, not Jesus. Even from a very young age, I could sense the strong emphasis of good versus evil. In most situations, “evil” was essentially anything that contradicted the Church’s teachings. Of course, everything about the Church was good and holy. If you prayed, attended weekly mass, went to confession regularly and received communion, you would be “saved.” If you neglected those duties as a Catholic, you were on a path to damnation. It is taught that only through Christ can one gain salvation from the fires of Hell. Though the message of salvation is not delivered as harshly as it was in the early Church, that idea is still in the foundation of  belief. Due to this attitude, the Church has been attempting to “save” people for hundreds of years through missionary conversions. Missionaries travel the world to different civilizations in hopes of converting peoples, disregarding their pre-existing belief systems.

Religions, such as Catholicism, truly place people in a box in which there is no way to get out.  Devoted Catholics declare themselves as followers of Christ. It is as if every Catholic is looking through binoculars, cutting off their peripheral views. Not only are they ignoring other beliefs, but rejecting them as well. This is an extremely close-minded and hostile mentality despite the fact that faith should be the epitome of open-mindedness. Despite that aspect, the teachings of the Catholic Church are haunted by the recurring theme of love. Nearly every homily that I have ever sat through was based on the significance of love. However, the entire scene implies a major contradiction. If God is love, why would “He” make existence so difficult? This was especially curious to me, as I was witness to hate and inequality towards women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Church. As a young child, every Catholic is told that “Jesus loves them.” That phrase is repeated so often that one must wonder if the Church is overcompensating for something. The bulk of the “Catholic contract” expresses love, but most fail to read the fine print.

In accordance with Catholicism, Watts examines the human mentality of identity as me against them. He explains, “Most of us have the sensation that 'I myself' is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which 'confronts' an 'external' world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange” (Watts). In reading that, I can relate greatly. This is the mindset that incites fear (just as the outside dream does in The Four Agreements) and thus is cause for my personal anxieties and feelings of aloneness. Common phrases, such as “I came into this world,” bolsters human division. As products of the universe, we should be saying that we “came out of the world.” Watts channels poet Walt Whitman in saying that “every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe” (Watts).  Though I know these things to be true, I do not have a conscious sense of  it in my daily life so I go on as viewing myself as an outlying entity. In recognizing the world as an external existence, humans feel obligated to conquer. So far, we have quelled everything known to our life such as nature, space, people and more. We must realize that the world is not foreign, but is merely an extension of our own bodies.

In reading Whitman, I immediately noticed a stark contrast to the Catholic creeds previously preached to me. With Whitman, you yourself is god, not a bearded man in the sky. In "Song of Myself," Section 24, he truly challenges the church with, “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from, The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds” (Whitman). With Whitman, everything existing around you, including yourself, is god as seen in Song of Myself 1, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air” (Whitman). With Whitman, the human race is one with not only each other but with nature. He declares in "Song of Myself," Section 24, “No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them…. Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.” The same theme is present in "Song of Myself," Section 52:  "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles…….You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood” (Whitman).  For every  close-minded belief I was taught, Whitman has an open- minded counter thought.

In terms of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the “cave” in my life was not only the Catholic Church, but my hometown as well. Poughkeepsie is a  cave in the sense that it is a one-track minded, isolated city where many of the people in the community stick to the status quo. Just as Catholicism does not allow room for other beliefs, Poughkeepsie is very exclusive in its way of thinking and the general lifestyle. My fellow high school peers were very insensitive and hateful towards people not of their ilk. I saw that same behavior in the Catholic Church. Arriving here at Hofstra was a culture shock of sorts for me. It is a completely different world where there is inclusivity and students can be whoever they are without receiving constant ridicule. Every time I go home, it is as if I have stepped back into that cave of ignorance and  animosity.

Works Cited

Watts, Alan. “Chapter One: Inside Information .” The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are, terebess.hu/english/AlanWatts-On%20The%20Taboo%20Against%20Knowing%20Who%20You%20Are.pdf.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself .” Leaves of Grass .

Ruiz, Don Miguel. The Four Agreements . Amber-Allen, 2012.

Plato . “The Allegory of The Cave .” The Allegory of The Cave .

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