When I was a child, I used to fear that in the middle of the night the devil would reach up from Hell and pull my toes. Although this may not sound terribly threatening, the thought of it completely terrified me.
I am not sure why this particular fear developed during my childhood, or why the suffering was centered on my toes instead of more vulnerable appendages, but that is just how it was. At the time, I slept in a twin bed in the family home, and I remember the left side of the bed as being up against the wall. But not completely--there was a gap. And it was this gap that was, of course, the portal to hell through which the devil had access to my toes.
And people wonder why I struggle with anxiety at times.
I actually do have an idea of where my fear came from. I was raised Catholic, though that is a laughable combination of words--"raised Catholic"--because anyone who is brought up in the teachings of the Church risks remaining a child, developmentally, in certain ways. You can't "grow up" as a Catholic, because to do so would be to declare that you can make moral decisions on your own--without the guidance of the Church (this is not exclusive to the Catholics, by the way). Fortunately, many choose to forego the moral teachings of the Catholicism and just stick to the ceremonies, which at times can offer both community and comfort. As they say, you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater!
But this essay is not about the many failures of the Catholic Church. It is about the silliness of Hell--an idea that perhaps many more can agree upon.
Satan as a child, and I had every right to be. From a very early age on I was told that being good would get me to Heaven, and being bad would get me to Hell. Good: Heaven. Bad: Hell. I was told this many, many times by many, many people. What was expressed less clearly was what exactly constitued being bad or good. There were the basics, of course, but the act of living is the opposite of basic, isn't it? Black and white clarifications rarely apply to lives lived in the grey.
Nevertheless, I was such an impressionable youth that I did my best to be absolutely good absolutely all the time. This was easier than you might think for a boy raised in the 60's and 70's in Chula Vista, California. There just weren't a lot of bad influences around me at the time, or if there were, I rarely noticed them. Life did get greyer for me as I got older, and I found that I was more conflicted by my inner influences than the outer. Specifically, I began to think about sex.
Sex is the true definer of men, isn't it? I suspect that no other activity has a greater impact on the way a man feels about himself. I see this in the therapy room and I see it on the streets. I see it on the T.V. and I hear it in the whispers of the wind. The point is that it is everywhere. Is it any wonder that sex is front and center in the conversation about bad and good, right and wrong?
Have you ever noticed that our society criminalizes "feeling great"? Sex and drugs, two things that can result in great feelings, are condoned only if the indulgence of them stays within acceptable limits of pleasure. Is it not completely ridiculous that some cultures frown on sex for pleasure--that its only purpose is to cause a pregnancy? This is as silly as saying that you should only eat ice cream to get your calcium intake--but don't dare enjoy it!
In the same way, you might have observed that drugs, at least the ones that are legal, are promoted to make us feel "good", but if they are used to feel "great", then they are either being abused, or declared illegal. Who makes up these fucking rules? Well, I suspect that it is the same group of people who created the concept of Hell. Why did they do this? The answer is pretty simple: CONTROL.
As a child, the concept of Hell kept me in line, and keeping in line was given upmost importance in my family. It was one thing to fear a spanking if I misbehaved, it was a whole other thing to fear burning for eternity (or having my toes pulled in the night!). As motivators go, Hell is a pretty effective one, especially if you have a house with two rambunctious little boys. It let my parents off the hook--it turned them into my protectors rather than my punishers--they were simply looking out for my eternal soul when they told me to behave!
What my parents did not do (or did not know how to do) I did for myself as I grew up. What I did for myself is I taught myself how to think critically. This was not a natural skill, believe me. It is a skill that developed to survive a culture that deemed me broken, perverted, deviant, and sinful. The only way for me to make it out alive from under the teachings I had received early on was to hold them up for inspection and test their validity in the real world. Want to know something? Not many of them held up under inspection.
See, the thing about the real world, as I alluded to earlier, is that it is not black and white. It is all the shades of grey. Right and wrong, bad or good, these are value judgements that are assigned by people depending on their particular value system. Masturbation, for example, can only be wrong if pleasure is considered to be dangerous, as it is in the Catholic Church, among others. The Catholic Church values suffering above pleasure, because if people truly knew how to enjoy themselves responsibly, they would not need the Church, or any church for that matter. Also, if people knew how to be responsible for their hurtful behavior, then the Church would have no purpose. The criminalization of pleasure is nothing more than a business strategy; however it works because as humans we can't avoid seeking pleasure. It is in our DNA, and we would not have survived all these years without it.
These days, the churches are losing the masses, well, except for the Mormon Churce. It is succeeding because it has a different message than the Catholics: it sells "Heaven" as something that is waiting for you if you accept it (with behavioral conditions, naturally), as opposed to it being something that we are in constant danger of losing with the slightest fuck up. Mormonism, for those who buy into it, makes you feel good, whereas Catholicism mostly makes you feel bad. It operates by offering hope instead of guilt. The Mormon Church may be smarter than the Catholic Church, but that does not mean it is less dangerous.
The danger is to those of us who can only live in the greys (most of us!). Those of us who are non-conforming through our sexuality, our gender expression, our queer and trans brothers and sisters and others, those in non-traditional relationships, or anyone who dares to think for themselves. The danger is that our differences are criminalized--not by the law, but by opinion. The danger is in suppression for those who are included, and oppression for those who are excluded. The danger is in replacing what is real with the artificial--exacerbating the juicy difficulties in life by pretending they don't exist. The danger is real, whether you believe it or not.
You know I once asked my brother (who is Mormon) why he will not watch R-rated movies, while a PG-rated movie with horrific violence towards others is okay. I knew that the church did not allow him to do so, but I was truly curious about this policy, because I couldn't understand why he was not deciding on his own, based on his values, what movies were appropriate for him and his family to watch. You know what he said to me when I asked him this question? He said, "Tony, knock if off!". He simply would not have the conversation! Wanna know how the story ends? I told him to fuck off , he told me to leave, and I left his house. We have not spoken to each other in nearly five years.
The Catholic Church really knocked it out of the park when it comes to sin. Nobody gets out of this alive without their blessings. They even declared that newborn babies must be babtized within a few weeks of birth, because if they die without this happening their "soul" will not go to Heaven. What the fuck is that?? What parent in their right mind would subscribe to a way of thinking that tells them that their newborn baby is not worthy? Well, many parents would subscribe to this, as it turns out. My parents did! You know who needs to be spashed with water? Those parents (and mine), not the baby! Wake up, parents!
My dear friend Carla, many years ago, shared with me her definition of sin. She said that sin can be described as any "death-enhancing action", period. I can subscribe to that. By calling an action "death-enhancing", the value judgement is eliminated in deference to the facts. Want to drink alcohol? Great! Just be aware that it poisons your blood and damages your brain. Want to have sex with many partners? Great! Just be aware that you could catch an STD and compromise your health. Want to kill someone? Great! Just be aware that loss of life has an effect on both those who initiate it and those who experience it. No judgement on your decision or if these consequences occur, but just know that cause and effect don't cease to operate just because you want them to. By Carla'a definition, even sun-tanning is a "sin" if you do too much of it and get skin cancer. But the brilliance of Carla's reframing is that it is not a substitute definition, it is a replacement definition. You either are leaning into death or into life at every moment, and that choice is entirely up to you, void of value judgements.
There is your black and white.
Face it, there is no physical or scientific evidence that points to the existence of Satan. "Hell", as it is fondly known, is not even possible in any of the ways it is described (and it follows that neither is "Heaven"). While we do know that there are other planets in the universe, we have yet to prove that there are other dimensions. (There are theories, but none proven.) Hence, one has to wonder how we came up with Hell in the first place. There was little actual proof of anything for a long long time, so we were forced to make up all kinds of stories to explain what we did not understand, especially if it was something we feared. Guess what tops the list of Not Understood and Feared: Death.
Ten years ago, my mother died. I did not witness her death, but I did see her body before it was cremated. Notice that I said "it", and not "she"? That is because she was not there in her body. I clearly remember leaning down and putting my ear by her nose to see if there were any breath coming out--I just needed to make sure that she was not still alive if she were going to be burned the next morning! There was no breath, of course, so I stood back and just looked at her still body for a long, long time. I touched her hands--they were cold. I got closer so that I could look at them. I knew these hands! I had known these hands from the moment that I was born. They held me, they dressed me, they washed me, they fed me. They spanked me, they nudged me, they wrapped presents for me, they opened presents from me. Looking at her lifeless hands felt to me like what it must be to visit a childhood home that is vacant and about to be demolished. We look for the life, the warmth, the sense of familiarity, and yet it evades us. We only see brick and mortor, because the life, the warmth, the sense of familiarity came from the family that used to live there, not the house. When I looked at my mother's hands, hands that I knew so well, they were no longer hers, because she was gone. They were just hands that I once knew, and knew no more. Her body was just the house, not the person.
Death is truly the Big Unknown, is it not? We do know more about it than we know about, say, conception, but death compels our attention more because we know what comes after conception, generally. Less so about what comes after death. What we do know is that the body is actually far from dead when we die, that any number of organic processes jump right into action as a way to make use of all that available matter. What is "dead" initially is our brain activity, but even that does not all stop at once. But without brain activity, the relationship between the brain/body/environment is ruptured, and the cost of that is consciousness. So "we" die, and bodies "live on" by becoming part of another life cycle. Matter is preserved, but not consciousness. You are free to believe otherwise, but I dare you to prove me otherwise.
Those who struggle with the meaning of life hate these facts, because they threaten the meaning placed on their lives: meaning predicated on whether life leads to a desired afterlife. On the contrary, I have long felt that death, if viewed as final, positively affects meaning. I have found that one life, and only one, is a grand opportunity, and it becomes even more so if there are no available repeats! If you have only one dart with which to hit your target, you are going to aim ever so carefully, and do your best to not fuck it up. The game is going to mean more.
The Moral Compass
So what if you only have one dart with which to hit a target? Doesn't that make it more possible to fail, given that we can only hit the target or not? Well, not really. See the thing about targets is that though they often show up just one at a time, there are a jillion billion available to us, and we always have a dart with which to try hitting the one that shows up. Just because one is in our sights one day does not mean that we won't have a different one vying for attention tomorrow. So how do we decide which one to aim for? Critical thinking, that's how. That is, unless you want someone else telling you which target to hit, and that is not very much fun, is it.
At least it would not be fun for me. I suppose it is, possibly, fun for those who don't trust their own thinking. I remember many many years ago when I was on tour with a Christian choir from Azuza College for a Disney traveling show. I was not with the choir, I was touring with them as a dancer. One day I was having lunch with one of the male choir members, and we were talking about faith, as one often does over a plate of french fries. I remember asking him what would guide him if he were to give up his faith, and he told me that he could never do that, because if he did he was sure he would be a mass murderer. Wow. That's a pretty fragile tether! I thought to myself: Does he really think that without the dictates of his church that he would run around killing people? And the sad answer that came back to me was: Yes, he does think this. His targets, if left to his own thinking, would be other people's lives, reduced to being victims of a supposedly Satanic acting-out. Wow. I realized then and there that the greatest opportunity I had ever received in life was my rejection from the Catholic Church.
Targets (as I understand them) are identified based on what we find important--and this is often defined by how we set our moral compass (or how it is set up for us). Compasses (as I understand them) are for showing us the "right direction". The "right" part of that is not determined by the compass, but by whomever is holding it. He or she decides, based on where it is they want to go. The targets we see before us are determined, hopefully, by the destination we have in mind for ourselves, which is reason enough to think about our lives. Don't be surprised if the targets and the destinations don't match up. I will admit that the self-determination of one's own destination is a responsibility that many would rather not take, because the choice requires accountability from the chooser.
When I was in my 20's and struggling to accept my sexuality, I made a choice to accept my attraction to men, but it was not without difficulties. I had always been shown where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to want out of life, and what I should be prepared to give back. But homosexuality cut off access to the privileges of non-thinking. When the path is taken away from you, you have to pick a direction on your own, otherwise you stay exactly where you are. I took a tentative step into the unknown and, bit by bit, carved out a new path based on my thinking about the next step.
Thus I was uncomfortably introduced to critical thinking. I liken it to an arranged marriage, in that while initially suspicious of each other, my sexuality and I have grown over time to love one another in a way that far surpasses the fatuous rush of religious fervor. The thing about "rushes" is that they go by quickly, don't they? My relationship with critical thinking is not something that will pass me by in time, due to the fact that it is a relationship with something that is a part of me, rather than with something outside of me. In other words, my moral compass is self calibrated, which increases the chances that I will move toward a direction that is authentic rather than dictated. Call me crazy, but I would not have it any other way. And this is why my sole expression of gratitude toward the Catholic churce lay in its rejection of me.
“It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
From a purely imaginative standpoint, hell is hella silly! It is silly because its existence relies on the concept that evil exists, and it doesn't. People sometimes behave very badly, either with intent or due to a brain abmormality (mental illness is not evil), but to label this behavior a personality characteristic is not only simplistic and reductive, but also dangerous. To do so allows everyone else to separate themselves from any connection to a damaged person, as if "damage" were an occurrence that happens less frequently than it actually does. How frequent does damage happen in individuals? Well, a conservative estimate would say that it happens in every fucking human being. Now, from that premise we can begin to see the problem with labeling another as evil as though it were a proprietary characteristic--it is denying what is always a possibility in ourselves; it is separating ourselves from the very real fact that we are always, always choosing.
Satan and God were created in order to relieve us of the task of choosing--they became the choosers. That is silly! This is why my choir friend felt that he would shoot the whole town up if he were to unleash himself from faith. I trust that were he to actually step away from his beliefs, that he would eventually start to think for himself, resulting in the conclusion that shooting up the town is indeed a very poor choice, and one that does not suit him at all! Unfortunately, he was never forced to confront this shift in thinking, as far as I know. But he doesn't have to--he is straight and white--the base components of complacency. If you are straight and white and male you don't have to change a goddamn thing, because all the rules work in your favor (including, not coincidentally, the rules about God and Satan). But I still pity him, as there is no way he can be at peace if he truly believes that a mass murderer lives within him.
What I find interesting about the story of Lucifer (Satan) is that he is supposed to have once been a very perfect angel until he commited the sin of "pride" in himself. Gasp! Are you as shocked as I am? He dared to feel good about himself, and God could not handle that. It is actually said that sin originated in the free will of Lucifer--this was the offense of offenses--thinking for oneself, or critical thinking. Sounds to me like God is a bit of an insecure control freak douchbag. At least that is the conclusion I come to when I think for myself about it. My second thought is this: it is ALL bullshit.
You want to know what I think hell is? Hell is doing a hurtful thing to another and trying hard to believe that it is justified. That challenge to truth can tear a person apart. Emotional pain, in the here and now, is a form of suffering that matches up with the fictional Hell in that when you are in it you can't find a way out. Fortunately, there is a way out, and that is by going through it. And the difference between the fictional Hell and emotional hell is that the latter has a payoff for us if we see it through. We will realize that we cannot deny the truth of our bodies when they tell us that we are choosing death over life. And if we reach this conclusion, we are better off for it. Hell, in this context, is a process that requires critical thinking. The fictional Hell is the exact opposite of that, and that is quite silly, when you sit down and think about it.