March 9th, 2006


Way Out

I begin today with an account of a particular phase of my adolescence. For me, as for many, that time of life was a time of casting about, of testing limits, and of questioning the validity of every undocumented truism that my upbringing had fed me. Oh, this is no screed against my parents, not at all. I had wonderful parents. This isn’t about them at all; it’s about the dawning of the realization that I had some important investigating to do, and some important choices to make.

I want to begin by talking about an author by the name of John Macklin. He wrote the book pictured above, and perhaps a few dozen others, of which I owned at least six or eight, though they all fell apart or disappeared while I was still a teenager. His books were all of a similar format: they were compilations of “true” stories of ghosts, possessions, poltergeists, and suchlike. The titles got you right away – A Look Through Secret Doors; Challenge to Reality; The Brotherhood of the Strange are three that come to mind. I don’t know whether Macklin ever wrote any other kind of book, but he had his style down for this sort of thing. His writing was solid, intelligent, and grammatically sturdy, yet rarely flashy, all of which served to make the spooky tales he was reporting seem very plausible and therefore very scary at times.

Now you may look above at the those two paragraphs and think that they have nothing to do with one another, but to me, they are all of a piece. I was, to be sure, thrilled by the scariness of those books, but it was the presumed reality of them that really hooked me. Now at the same time I was reading those books, I was a student at St. Ignatius of Antioch School in Detroit, where I was consistently told that such occurrences were absolutely the work of the Devil, which of course only heightened the taboo allure of them. While Macklin was my main man, I did buy other occult titles as well, most notably a paperback titled The Devil’s Own. While that one also contained some lurid tales of demonic possession et al, it also contained practical instructions on such do-it-yourself projects as summoning demons and otherwise putting yourself in touch with the netherworld. I never for a moment considered trying any of those little handyman projects myself; on the one hand, I seriously doubted they would work, and on the other hand, what if they did? I couldn’t be summoning demons in my living room – Dad would have hit the ceiling! And here’s something else you should know: once you get brimstone on upholstery, the smell never goes away. Mom would have killed me! On top of which, I don’t care what favor you want to ask from him; in my book, having a demon in front of you is one of those risk/reward equations where the risk outweighs the reward every time!

I have one other memory associated with that book which intrigues me to this day. I brought The Devil’s Own to school with me one day, and my 8th grade nun, Sister Mercita, saw it. Looking back, I must say that I greatly admire her restrained reaction. She didn’t snatch the book from me and rip it up; she didn’t send me to the principal’s office and have me suspended. No, she acted as if she were as fascinated by all of it as I was (which may well have been true), and she asked me to relate to her what sorts of things I was gleaning from the book. Given that nonpressured environment, I happily told her all she wanted to hear. She nodded and said nothing, and we moved on. I think she realized, rightly, that this was the sort of inquiry and fixation that a lot of adolescents go through and in most cases, certainly in mine, that fixation dries up and blows away as one matures.

At the same time that was going on, I was beginning to fall away from religious belief. The process was akin to the tide slowly eroding the foundation from under your house until one day, the whole structure suddenly collapses. In the matter of my religious belief, the collapse didn’t happen until I was in the 10th grade and when it happened, I was plunged into a funk, a depression if you like, that lasted a few years. But the sands had begun to wash away years earlier. I know that this fact pains some of my more devout friends, but they will have to handle this knowledge as they see fit. I will say this: I think I learned a lot of wonderful spiritual precepts from my religious upbringing, and many of those precepts are a strong part of who I am today. Chief among them is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, so here it comes again: The truth shall set you free. To me, that statement is a calling to use your brain, your feelings, and every good tool at your disposal to find truth. I don’t want to settle on something as the truth just because it fits well or feels good. In matters of faith, I’d rather accept my own ignorance than embrace something out of convenience. To do otherwise would be so lazy and self-cheating that I would not imagine a just God rewarding me for the deed.

I know I’m off on a tangent but stay with me. For me, accepting my own ignorance even as I search for enlightenment is a cornerstone of intellectual integrity. I think we humans get into trouble because our brains are wired to search for patterns, even to the point of finding them where they do not exist. And I think that it is easy to weary of the search, to weary of one’s own ignorance, and that accepting the handy, unsupported explanation that is handed to you is a way of solving the problem and feeling better. I won’t claim to be innocent of such actions. I have been accused by some religious people of letting my ego get in the way of accepting a God. To me, it is just the opposite. My wish is to keep that ego reined in; to not allow myself the hubris of thinking that I know more than I do. To me, true knowledge is a precious thing. It may be the rarest thing in all the world. Such slivers of it as I may find are gold to be cherished, because they must be sorted out from the mountains of fool’s gold that are passed off as truth. So I think this is part of the incredible allure of religion, especially organized religions – they offer you the opportunity to feel as if you have acquired a wonderful, precious bounty of knowledge. There’s a word for that, and the word is seduction. Hey, we all like to be seduced now and then, but in religion as in love, we’re in trouble the moment we confuse seduction with the real thing.

If you’re of a religious nature, you may not much care for what I’m writing here. You may even find it offensive. Let me tell you this: I’m not trying to go after or goad religious people here. This is just me trying, in my rambling style, to tell you who I am. If you read something that resonates for you, I think that’s terrific. In fact, it pleases me no end to find common ground with people of faith, because we can build bridges with the things we share in common. And after all, I claim no ability to preach the path to enlightenment. I tend to think that there are many paths to it, and maybe, just maybe, a religious person and I may find ourselves heading toward the same knowledge, each on his own intellectual and spiritual path!
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