I picked up a book at my local library the other day titled Religions, and thought it would be a fun read. My intentions picking up the book were to refresh on my knowledge of world religions and maybe find some new things to understand about people of the world not close to my home or my beliefs. I have always enjoyed learning about beliefs not my own and have really enjoyed the process of appreciating the traditions, ways of life, and the positive life motivations and pursuits of others. Everyone has a story to tell and I find those stories, with their origins and uniqueness often so incredibly different from my own, fascinating and fun to learn and discover.
I have also been reading a lot of nonfiction – particularly biographies and autobiographies – coming from people of other cultures and ways of life, and this is what got me interested, I think, in getting more information about cultures different than my own.
I brought the book home, excited to dive in and start learning about the religions and cultures of the world. However, I found fairly quickly that the book was not taking the direction I had imagined for this new study of religions and cultures I had planned for myself. Immediately I discovered in the book a distant approach to religion, which considered religions from a very broad perspective and which cast consistent doubt on each of the practices and the individually cherished beliefs described as the book went on. I didn’t make it very far – only through the first few chapters – before I was considering questions that I hadn’t intended being the primary objective of my excited new study of world religions. Questions that cast doubt on the religions of the world, that were critical of these cultures, their beliefs and practices, and thoughts which even cast an unfavorable perspective on my own spiritual and religious cultural background.
I stopped reading the book after that and decided I’d need to find better sources for learning about the amazing religions of the world, because while I value looking at subjects from a variety of perspectives, it seemed to me counter-productive to be reading a book about religions and faith which left me thinking critically about those faiths rather than leading me to appreciate them in a way similar to the way in which a believer of those particular faiths would appreciate the richness and inspiration such beliefs brought to their own life. I concluded that this survey book about religions simply could not provide me with the nuanced understanding of each distinct, individual faith tradition, which I was seeking to obtain. So I would need to probably go individually to sources from each of the faith traditions themselves, hopefully sources from individual people within those faiths, to obtain a more valuable and accurate snapshot of what they believed.
I recently (last week) finished the book, The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, the personal story of Hyeonseo Lee. The book was riveting; probably one of the best autobiographies I’ve read. It ranks right up there with another of my recent favorites, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Both of these stories have provided me with what I consider invaluable when learning and appreciating the background and life perspective of others:
- Truth, candidness – as close as it can come – regarding the individual’s story, life, background, experience (and truth told by them, rather than about them by another).
- An un-jaded approach by that individual toward her history and past, even when that history and past are riddled with problematic experiences, pain caused by others, and (possibly) an altogether unfavorable experience.
In regards to that last point, point #2 – I found both Walls’s account of her history growing up in poverty and Hyeonseo’s approach to her history growing up in infamous North Korea able to achieve an inspiring and incredible balance between offering the truth – blunt truth – of unfavorable circumstances (without sugar coating) while also painting a full and rich picture of the good that was offered them, even growing up in (unique to each of them) incredibly unfortunate, painful, at times degrading circumstances. Each writer offered a plain view of the flaws of the individuals who led them through their most painful experiences, while also offering a plain view of the virtues and the positive experiences that happened intermittently (or even consistently) throughout the pain.
Walls’s judgment of her father, in particular, is a fascinating study of how one might look plainly and truthfully on the wrongdoings and faults of another while also valuing and appreciating what that individual had to offer, on the whole or at specific times, that was good, wholesome, even inspiring.
You’ll have to read the book if you want to know more. A single blog post on my part simply can’t begin to do it justice. But hopefully you understand what I’m talking about:
When I want to learn about someone’s story, someone’s history and past, I want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don’t want to know the bad and the ugly just for the sake of criticizing the individual or his or her family or anyone who may have brought those things into their life in the first place. And I don’t want to know the good in order to praise and admire that individual only for isolated good traits or experiences, severed from a more nuanced perspective of a complicated past (which I believe all of our experiences to be).
We all have good and bad in our lives and in our histories. Some of that good was brought into our lives by others. Some of that bad – possibly much of that bad – was also brought into our lives by others. Some of the good we have fought for, worked for, sought out, and cultivated by our own sheer will and against great odds (particularly given some of the bad brought into our lives by others). And some of the flaws and negativity in our lives, we bring upon ourselves. In essence, no one of us is devoid of negative past experiences, and no one of us has a life entirely absent of good – particularly good intentions and the search for good in some form.
I want to understand, at a basic level, what makes someone human – with the good, the bad, and everything, all laid out candidly. I seek to understand that about myself and my own history, and to consider the people in my life with the same deference and non-judgment which I would like to receive from them.
All in all, understanding oneself and others is a complicated matter. But I believe that when we look for the good – and when we seek to be understanding and appreciative, rather than critical, of ourselves and others, we will find a much more compelling, inspiring and uplifting truth – one that drives us to do good and be good – to build up rather than tear down.