Sometime last winter, when the weather was about as awful as New York weather gets during February, I met a friend of mine for coffee and conversation in a Barnes and Noble Starbucks. As we sat and chatted and caught up on what we’d been doing since we’d last met, we were suddenly addressed by the caffeine-drinker at the next table, a guy about our age.
It was fascinating to me how religion, something which means so much to me and which is ingrained in everything I do, could be nothing much more than an obstacle to someone else, even if it wasn’t my religion he was talking about. Of course religion, like race and gender and sports teams, is a sensitive issue. In fact, it’s probably the most sensitive issue to me personally, and yet I find myself having debates on the subject nearly every other week, with Jews and non-Jews alike.
Perhaps the most interesting part about it (and most of these sensitive subjects) is that none of these arguments ever go anywhere. It’s not like during the course of a conversation you can just convince someone who is more or less religious than you are to accept your view on life as their own. Because this isn’t a debate of fact, it’s one of faith (even if you don't "believe" anything). Honestly, how is anyone ever supposed to win such an argument? You can’t do it. And more often than not I find these discussions draining, especially during times when I find it more difficult to have the faith I’m so adamantly defending.
And my feeling, especially when talking to those who find what I believe laughable, is that they’re looking at me like I’m crazy, like I’m talking about some imaginary friend. For some reason I picture Elwood Dowd from Harvey, or Frank from Donnie Darko (and just as happy or scary, depending on my mood). You know, a giant bunny, or something equally ridiculous. I refer to these moments, when you're talking earnestly about something you deeply believe in only to have the other person look at you like you're nuts, as 6-Foot Rabbit moments.
Now, I am not comparing G-d to a 6-Foot Rabbit. I am merely trying to express what it feels like to be stared at like you just said something stupid. And I am by no means saying that all the people I argue with or who don't believe in G-d are like this, heck no. I have some very respectful friends who are Agnostics or Atheists, who when they ask me why I believe are genuinely curious. They're not the ones who look at me like this. But unfortunately, there are some people who do. Take, for instance, the Hipster From College.
The Hipster From College was a guy in one of my philosophy classes who took other people's beliefs as a personal insult. This was a guy who actually once called me "stupid" during class because of my belief in a Creator. He was a jerk who would snicker as he passed a praying Muslim or Jew on campus. And I always figured that G-d would forgive that Muslim or Jew if they stopped praying at that moment to do this:
But this guy was an exceptionally jerky person who is in no way indicative of... well, anyone, I should hope. Back to the topic at hand.
When discussing the sensitive topics (especially faith), several things frustrate me, sometimes to the point where frustration turns into a weird sort of sadness. For instance, I realize that since nobody can be convinced, many people also cannot respect each others' opinions, and thus begin to look at anyone who is more religious than them as a fanatic, and anyone who is less religious as a sinner. I've heard it compared to being on the road. Anyone driving slower than you is a moron, and anyone driving faster is a maniac.
In these cases, which are less debates and more like boxing matches, the result is not so much an agreement to disagree as it is a horrific crash that makes neither side look good.
The other thing that makes me look at this whole "arguing about sensitive issues" thing and sigh with exhaustion is that sometimes, as I've mentioned before, it gets hard for even the most faithful to defend their thoughts. Because sometimes, no matter how much you love your religion, race, or sports team, you're not always on the mother of all good terms with them. Sometimes things go wrong that make you ask, "Really, G-d? Why'd you do that?" or "Come on, people, why do you have to perpetuate such a negative stereotype?", or "Damn it, Dolphins, can't you just win this one for me?". Just as in the above-linked post, it's like being in a fight with a good friend and then having to defend them. It's a test of loyalty, and even if we manage to pass that test, it doesn't make the situation feel any less sucky.
Sometimes, we just aren't up to it. Sometimes, we feel so unsure that we'd be willing to take advice from TV, magazine horoscopes, or (G-d help me) Mick Jagger:
But it wouldn't be life if it was all cake, cookies, coffee, and roses, would it? Nope, then it would be boring and look like a Hallmark Card or a hotel room painting. And in the end, I think that would stink more than having the occasional doubt or 6-Foot Rabbit moment in your life.
And hey, isn't that why we feel the need to argue those sensitive topics anyway? Because they aren't so universally-obviously correct? If they were obvious, they wouldn't be matters of faith, and we wouldn't have anyone disagreeing with us in the first place. Honestly, I feel like those doubts and those arguments are fundamental to having a good relationship with your own belief system. Because if you didn't defend it, you would have any moments of uncertainty. And if you didn't have those moments, you couldn't really examine your innermost thoughts and make that conscious decision that "Yes. I do believe this, and not just because it's what I was told. I genuinely, truly believe this, and here's why."
And that realization, that despite your 6-Foot Rabbit moments of feeling attacked, stupid, or unsure you are SECURE with what you believe in, is worth every single one of those unpleasant instances. Like having a fight with your spouse and realizing that if you still want to be with them when you're fighting, you truly have what it takes to make it as a couple.
And the best part of knowing that is you can finally tell the 6-Foot Rabbit moment to shove itself when it rears its ugly head (and if it's anything like Frank in Donnie Darko then it really is quite ugly).
Because then you don't care if someone else thinks you're stupid. You know you're not.
Then you can have those deep philosophical discussions, because done right, they can be enlightening. Even refreshing. Just as long as you remain respectful of each other. Once again I'm reminded of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (which you really should see, because it's a truly wonderful film), and one of my favorite lines in all of cinema:
Doesn't that just say it all? :)