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The Church Doors Close Behind Me

I am weary of delivering eulogies. Eulogies for my mother, my marriage, my home, my dog. I’ve written and delivered many eulogies these past two years. Now, I’ve written and delivered another.

My grandmother died just over two weeks ago. She was a big part of my life, especially when I was a child. She was born in 1922 in a village on Italy’s west coast, into a family that would become divided into inductees into Mussolini’s army and two of her brothers who became partisani and met very, very bad ends for doing so. Her real life began just after Christmas in 1943 when that part of the Allied forces that included my grandfather’s artillery division liberated this village. My grandfather was a handsome fellow and my grandmother was a pretty local girl who caught his eye. By 1946 she’d become a war bride and had followed her still-new husband to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which to her might as well have been a journey to an entirely different planet. The place where she would die, seventy-two years later.

Nearly all my ancestors are gone now. Still living on my mother’s side of my family are my mother’s sister, her husband, and myself. I’m close with my father, but not so close with his surviving brother as I’d like, nor with any of my cousins on his side of the family. This realization makes me feel sorry for myself, I suppose, but it’s the product of choices that we’ve all made to have few children (in the case of my parents) or none (in the case of my aunt and myself). I’ve no idea if these are good choices or bad or neutral.

The Church Doors Close Behind Me

A detail of the stained glass in the church.

What I do know is that I’m the one in the family who is thought best at public speaking (lawyer!) and consequently I was tasked with eulogizing my grandmother. In the same church where my mother and aunt were baptized, the same church in which my parents were married, the same church in which I eulogized my grandfather. The same church where I looked as a teenager upon the looming crucifix with the detailed wood sculpture of a tortured Jesus with a gaping spear wound below his ribcage and the luminous stained glass portrayal of Bible stories like the Temptation of Eve and the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Last Supper, and said to myself, “Not only do I not believe any of this ever happened, it’s downright gruesome and why are we exposing little kids to this and calling it good?”

But there it is, the crucifix and the luminous gory stained glass depicting the ancient stories and a priest who’d never met my grandmother and who could not pronounce her name correctly, mumbling a homily about the Visitation through a thin cloud of incense. My lack of faith was not relevant to the proceedings. My grandmother’s great faith — and my aunt’s in her footsteps — was what steered us back to this building, this institution. I’ve known for a long time that to close the door of her life, I’d have to go through the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed through this particular church on the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

For the sake of the living, most especially for the sake of my aunt who I will admire to the end of my days for caring for her mother during nearly two decades of physical and mental decline (while also juggling a career and caring for a disabled husband and rebuilding her home after a fire destroyed their first), I paid honor to the strength and guidance the Church provided my grandmother during her life. I said the words of the Mass and ate the cracker which I have never actually believed was the body of the risen savior, I sang the songs and recited the prayers and said the amens. Because funerals are for the living and even though my aunt knows perfectly well I am not a believer, she needed the assurance of the ritual and the cultural continuity.

What’s more, there just weren’t that many other people there to say those words, to sing those songs, to engage in the rituals. We wish long lifetimes to one another, forgetting this comes with a price. A consequence of living as long as my grandmother did is nearly all of her friends have preceded her in death. This particular church is a cavernous space, which can seat at least 750 people at Easter or Christmas. But for my grandmother’s funeral, there might have been 40 people there — including the choir of which my grandmother had been a member for as long as her voice had the strength to sing her Alleluias.

Absent from the funeral was my grandmother’s best friend, the lady who lived across the street. She turned 100 years old earlier this year. Unlike my grandmother, Alzheimer’s did not come to rob her of her memories and faculties. She visited with my grandmother nearly every day to play cards and check in and keep my grandmother’s mind as sharp as she could for as long as she could. I called her out in my eulogy for special thanks for this, but as I say, she wasn’t there at all. My aunt and I went to visit with her a few hours after we interred my grandmother’s ashes next to those of the handsome G.I. who’d gone ahead of her. Our neighbor was visibly tired and candid about her own end being imminent–she was comfortable enough with the notion of her own end, but the thought of her friend being gone was too much for her and that was why she hadn’t gone to the funeral Mass.

Part of me wishes the words and the rituals and the prayers meant something to me. Would that they had comforted and assured me, as they did my aunt and her husband, that there was a plan and despite my grief, all would work out for the best. It’s simply not within me to embrace that notion, and not for lack of listening and trying and at one point in my life, wanting. I don’t know why others can have that experience but not me.

What I know is that funerals are for the living. Standing in a nearly empty church, filled with symbols that have become empty to me, filled with at least as much gratitude that my grandmother’s suffering and decline had ended as grief at her departure, was as surreal an experience as I’ve ever had.

The funeral was held for my aunt’s benefit, and my father’s benefit, but also to a large degree for my benefit. I didn’t want it to be hollow. There was a measure of closure, notwithstanding the anticlimactic nature of the experience. I may not ever again enter that church, just as I will almost certainly never again be inside my grandmother’s house. Whether I look back or not, whether I regret it or not, whether I’ve had quite enough of having to adapt to yet another diminishment in my family, another door is closed behind me now.

Photo by Jules & Jenny The Church Doors Close Behind Me

 

 

 


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79 thoughts on “The Church Doors Close Behind Me

  1. Beautiful post Burt and I’m sorry for your loss. This resonated deeply with me:

    I said the words of the Mass and ate the cracker which I have never actually believed was the body of the risen savior, I sang the songs and recited the prayers and said the amens. Because funerals are for the living and even though my aunt knows perfectly well I am not a believer, she needed the assurance of the ritual and the cultural continuity.

    I am not an atheist, but I’m also no longer a Christian or a practicing Catholic. My siblings both have children younger than mine so we are still asked to attend Masses for various Catholic milestones. First Communions, Confirmations, etc. I find it a bit easier because I have done a bit of a mental shift where I just view the entire process as a historical ritual, not a religious one. I’m agnostic about whether Jesus was a real person, but I do greatly enjoy church history. I find this occupies my mind during services. If I’m being honest, I also still enjoy participating in the rituals with my family as a shared exercise.

    My grandparents are all gone and we’re in this period of life where I can see the next 10 years being filled with funerals for the generation before us. I’m not looking forward to it. I worry what my family will look like afterwards. Will we still see the cousins at Christmas? Will my brother and I drift apart even more without my mom to act as the glue that holds us together? What will my wife do without her parents, who she cares for deeply? I know every generation has to bury the one that came before, but I am not ready to start the process yet.

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    • It would be a sign of respect to those faithful around you if, as you went up for Communion, you crossed your arms across your chest, which will let the priest know to give you a blessing instead of the Communion host.

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      • I’m familiar with the protocol, however I find that bothers my mother more than simply not participating. The idea of me falling from the faith is still almost more than she can bear. So instead I stay in the Pew with my non-catholic wife.

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      • I knew of this protocol and had thought in advance about whether or not I should observe it. I decided that I’d go through the outward motions the way an actual Catholic not in a state of mortal sin would, and in the moment, the saddeningly-small congregation somehow reinforced rather than diminished that decision.

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        • I still do this when I go to my home parish. I realize many Catholics would be offended if they knew I was just playing along, but it seems better than everyone whispering about the oldest Dwyer kid not going to Communion and my family feeling a bit self-conscious about it. I still consider myself culturally Catholic and still have a lot of pride about the faith I was raised in. The couple of times I have been challenged on this by friends I always tell them it’s between me and the guy upstairs, and something tells me he will be fine with it.

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          • ” it’s between me and the guy upstairs, and something tells me he will be fine with it.”

            FWIW, although I still do believe, and my belief is close enough that I consider myself a Catholic still (I don’t really want to get into the details at the the moment), this is my opinion about y’all’s situation as well.

            Overall I try to ask myself, “Does believing *this* thing make me disappointed in God?” and asking grown men to make their families feel shame over matters of conscience does that, so out it goes. God is robust enough to rebound from any potential harms caused by people acting in good faith, even if that faith is a lack of it.

            Of course, I’m such a heretic I grew up attending Catholic and Anglican mass alternate Sundays (there’s a reason why I call my “second family” my second family), but that is what I believe.

            Burt, you did a good, hard, and fitting thing, going through these rituals. (I realize there wasn’t a question of you not doing it.) I’m glad it brought closure, and I’m grateful that you turned it into a beautiful post.

            And I’m sorry for your loss.

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            • There is a lot to love about the modern church. The social justice piece especially speaks to me. And here in Louisville, there are SO MANY of us and so much of our social fabric is built around the Catholic calendar (not so much religious, but all of the secular stuff – sports, church picnics, etc). I couldn’t imagine not claiming my Catholicism outside of church, and hypocrisy be damned.

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              • I am a member of KoC for similar reasons. I’m not the most active member by any means, and less so since my son was born, but it’s a community I’d miss sorely. The opportunity to do something charitable with my free time once in awhile is an added bonus for me personally.

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                • I totally understand what you’re talking about. I’m still very involved with my high school alma mater. 90% of what the Alumni Board does is secular but that other 10% gets tricky. I usually make an excuse as to why I can’t assist or keep my head down while everyone else does their thing, but I do occasionally feel like I have to hide my true thoughts.

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  2. the same church where my mother and aunt were baptized, the same church in which my parents were married, the same church in which I eulogized my grandfather

    This is something that makes me feel a vague envy.

    I don’t know where I’ll be funeraled. I don’t know whether I’ll be buried or cremated or what. I’ve got a handful of wishes, I guess, but they’re predicated on me dying before everybody else, not after.

    Knowing the the church where you will be eulogized, knowing it’s the one where you watched your kids get married, knowing it’s the one where your husband got eulogized? Man. I can’t even imagine being that tightly knit into a community.

    While I’m pretty sure I’ll be living in Colorado Springs in 2020, I don’t *KNOW* that my job won’t send me to Wyoming or something like that. I don’t *KNOW* that we won’t find work in some quiet little college town out in the middle of nowhere.

    My roots are easily torn up and moved elsewhere. I see something like that above and I think “jeez… while there are downsides, that’s a level of security that I’ll never know.”

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    • “jeez… while there are downsides, that’s a level of security that I’ll never know.”

      This. Lately I have been feeling a bit of an urge to move away from Louisville for the first time in my 43 years. Much of this is predicated on seeking colder climates, but also I guess I would like to see what it is like to really learn another city. With that I said, I don’t see it happening simply because I couldn’t imagine leaving family and friends behind. I need my circle.

      As for my post-death arrangements, I’m not very concerned about the funeral part, but it is important to me that my ashes end up in the right place. Cave Hill cemetery here in Louisville is quite well-known and I have family there going back several generations. We have a plot tentatively picked out and there’s a great comfort to me in knowing my great-grandmother and my great-great grandparents are only a few hundred feet away. I never met them but I love the idea of us resting together.

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        • I spent a lot of time there incollege between historical research and a creative writing professor who suggested old tombstones were a great way to get character ideas. The oldest ancestors I have there are my great-great-great grandparents. It’s a super-cool place. Luckily, my wife’s parents bought their plots there a couple of year ago, so that made it an easier sell.

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    • I know that feeling. For a junior-high project, my daughter and I traced our branch of the “Cain” surname back. W/o spending money, we could get as far as one Solomon Cain in eastern Kentucky, born in the 1820s. I’m descended from the sons who moved west, about one state per generation — Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and now Colorado. (Mostly merchants and tradesmen, so far as we could tell. No mention of anyone owning a farm.) I’d rather there not be a funeral or formal remembering thing — a nice wake, with craft beer and barbecue would be better. My treat. Most of the universities my wife and I have attended have some sort of “buy a brick with your name on it” program — I’ve been thinking that I should start buying those instead of a tombstone.

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      • I left that kind of security mostly because I was suffocating, but yet I still miss it all the time. We’re both pretty sure Jaybird will die first, so I’m holding off on a decision until he goes, and I figure out what to do with him / follow his wishes if he develops some. I think probably I’ll keep a portion of his ashes reserved from whatever he wants to do. and then have us both buried in one of the two cemeteries my grandmothers are in, back home. Each one of them is located somewhere that is special to me. But we have so many friends and loved ones here now that maybe … I don’t know. Part of me wants to say “Half in Cheyenne Canyon (illegal), the other half at low tide on PEI’s South Shore (also illegal).” We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for Jay and I to put down a headstone where *we* live.

        My grandfather’s ashes are buried in the woods on the edge of the property we all grew up spending weekends on, back home, and it meant a lot to me after he died, to sit on his grave (which says, simply, “Home from School”) and talk to him (even before the ashes were there, since his body was in a medical school for 2 years). I haven’t been able to go back for a while, because my dad owns the land right next to it, but when I go to the shore down the hill, I can *feel* every step along the path up to the tombstone, because I’d followed it a hundred thousand times before I turned 18, and feel that somehow he can still hear me (the two things aren’t necessarily related).

        ‘Tis hard to give up that sort of connection to the land and to your people, even if the reasons couldn’t possibly be any better than they are…

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    • Yeah, I know that feeling. I am 700 miles from nearest family. My parents are aged, and I fully expect them to predecease me. I have one sibling but he has a family of his own (and is 1000 miles from me). I am not close to any of my cousins (either geographically or in terms of the paths our lives have taken). I never married, and I don’t even really have any exes that I could claim any ‘closeness’ with.

      I’ve joked about donating my body to science when I go. Even to the Body Farm in Tennessee if they’d have me. I’m not sure I like the idea of taking up a chunk of real estate where few people would remember me or care, and for various reasons personal to me, I find the idea of cremation – even though I know I’ll be dead and all – uncomfortable and unpleasant to contemplate.

      There is talk of a “green” (no embalming and no concrete vaults) cemetery being started here and I would be all for that…but I’m sure there will be enough opposition to it that it will have a hard go.

      But all of this is difficult to think of even as I know that as I stare down the barrel of being 50 years old I should have some serious plans in place.

      (And it makes me wonder if that’s the reason among certain types of Christians the idea of an imminent Rapture gained traction: the idea of “I wouldn’t need to plan for what they do with my ‘shell’ in that case”)

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      • I was surprised to learn that I can dig a hole on my property anywhere that’s not within 100 ft of a well head (pretty easy on 75 acres) and bury any family member I want. The trick to the “green” part is 1) you have to have the coffin pre-made because, 2) without embalming you must be interred within 24 hrs. Or such are the laws in Virginia.

        Now commemorating that site and keeping it accessible for future generations? That requires some lawyerin’ to set-up an easement and such.

        In some ways my wife and I are Generation 1 of the family homestead… we’re hopeful that it will serve as a multi-generational base and have taken some steps in that direction… but the project is young and the future ever uncertain.

        Which reminds me, I should probably work on this a bit… I’m not getting any younger.

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        • I confess I also think a lot about how Lew Welch did it, though you’d have to be pretty aware you were fixin’ to die and capable of wandering out into the wilderness on your own (or have someone willing to cart you there, perhaps not an easy feat, given how they might likely be implicated in something.)

          And I’ve read about the Buddhist monks who allegedly self-mummified, though I’m not sure I buy the whole story there.

          (I’m really not a Goth. I didn’t even have a Goth period in high school. It’s just….without issue or close family, I wonder about how to do this thing when it comes time with minimal inconvenience to everyone)

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          • Well, that’s greener than I’d want to be… I’ve seen vultures eat our livestock.

            I doubt you should look on your death as a burden; you’d probably be surprised at the many folks who would consider it a small blessing to assist and see you off.

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    • I promised myself I’d get the will etc. planned out this year, and I’m still intending to. I doubt I’ll have any kids, and I don’t think it’d be much of an inconvenience to anyone if I don’t have a cemetery plot, so I assume I’ll go with cremation. I believe that the Catholic rules require an internment; I’ll have to figure that stuff out. I wouldn’t mind if this ol’ thing ends up getting sold to a generic Spam factory.

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      • 100 percent up to you of course, but if you’re okay with not having a full mass at your funeral, but rather the funeral service in body’s absence, you can give your body to research or whatever, and then be cremated and interred later. Have seen it done several times, in full blessing of the official church.

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    • I’m as agnostic as the day is long, so that kind of Church community is likewise foreign to me. I take care to make sure wills and estates are in order, just in case there is no one to see to my final dispensation.

      Otherwise, I find community where I can; here, there…

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    • I personally sprinkled the ashes of both my parents in Birch Bay, WA. I went out in Dad’s boat with his second wife and my sister and did the job.

      My wishes are for my own ashes to be sprinkled there, too, even though I live a thousand miles away from there, and will probably never live there again. It’s where I was raised, and where I come from.

      I don’t think you have to give up on those connections unless you want to. That’s up to you. But if something about this appeals to you, I encourage you to make some plans, and let people know what you’d like. We don’t have to settle for atomization and alienation.

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  3. Great piece. All my grandparents are gone, and I’m old enough that I’m expecting to go to my parents’ and my in-laws’ funerals within the next decade. My sister-in-law is in the hospital now; we’re hoping she’ll recover (pneumonia caused by chemo treatment). Along with facing your own mortality, witnessing the death of family and friends is the most difficult part of aging (give me a few years and I might adjust this).

    When my grandmother died back in 1995, we stopped seeing my aunt and her husband at holidays. Sometimes, my grandfather even had to go to separate Christmases. It’s not even acrimony; they just don’t like doing any family-type stuff.

    Sorry for your loss and your weariness.

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  4. This was an enjoyable piece of writing, and spoke to me as well.

    There does seem to be a slow motion eulogy going on for organized religion. Sort of a long slow emptying out, with nothing in particular to replace it.

    I don’t, myself, really know how I feel about it actually. I look at younger people who seem to be happy well adjusted and morally upright people without the need for an organization and I find myself unable to cast stones.

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  5. I’m sorry for your loss and what a lovely remembrance. I too have wandered from my Catholic upbringing. I remember growing up when we would get together with my Boston Grand-parents and cousins who had moved to New York, Illinois and our family to Oklahoma. The cousins all asking each other how often do you all actually attend mass? Answers varied from on big church holidays to the most common answer, when we are with Grammy and Grampa.

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  6. My condolences for your loss. I have Italian WW2 parents, lawyer by trade, and Catholic but practicing (the faith which is more successful than the law at the moment but that’s another story). I respect your honesty that the rituals are meaningless to you but also that you honored your grandmother to attend to those rituals because she believed in them. I imagine most of your family does as well.

    You raise an interesting question: why the faith doesn’t comfort you as it does others. I’ve often thought about that. I think it’s a matter of choice. You can choose to focus on the seemingly pointless circus we call life or choose to find meaning in it. I happen to choose, through the lens of Catholic teachings, to view life as having meaning, accepting the very absurdity that is inherent in our existence, and attempt to move forward making this life better than it was yesterday. But enough of my thinly veiled attempt at proselytization. I hope you have better days ahead.

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    • Well, if you’re going to open the door to some Thomism, I won’t feel so weird walking through it.

      Faith is a virtue, which simply means that it’s a good habit. And habit is simply something that becomes more natural through repetition. If you smoked for the past 30 years, or didn’t smoke, it’d greatly affect how you’d feel this morning about taking a puff. There are a lot of things that felt instinctive, or didn’t, when I was 7. We have the capacity to change, and we all have the capacity for faith. We grow into the person we want to be.

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      • The Thomist postulate here is that faith is habitual. What if the habit is a bad one? It might lead one to suspend one’s other moral habits, relying upon some understanding of divine command theory? (A significant reason I find the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac so morally repellent.) Some people of faith eschew life-saving medical treatments in favor of prayer and reliance upon divine intercession.

        In the case of grief after the death of a loved one, the Church preaches that we shall be reunited with, and see and embrace and love, the departed. Often the word “soon” is included. Adhering to this teaching may delay one’s full acceptance of the actual loss of the dead — after all, they are not really gone, just removed from this world. While this may in most cases be harmless, it is neither true (dead is dead) nor emotionally in the long run healthy.

        I do not accept Aquinas’ proposition that faith is a habit, though. It seems to me that it is more of an emotional experience, like love or laughter. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, just not something that is subject to training.

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        • Burt Likko: I do not accept Aquinas’ proposition that faith is a habit, though. It seems to me that it is more of an emotional experience, like love or laughter. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, just not something that is subject to training.

          Kind of both, I’d think.

          Like gratitude – it’s an experience, but one we can over time make more ready by consciously thinking thoughts of gratitude.

          Love, the same way, is an experience but also an act – we can consciously choose to wish others well, to do kind things for them, to prioritize their wellbeing – until over time we form the habit and simply experience their wellbeing as important, without self-reminder.

          Faith – somewhat harder – you can only consciously practice faith in an entity you believe to exist, and only have faith that the entity will do something you believe to be within its nature to do. Faith in a deity as framed by the Abrahamic religions is simply not accessible to me. It may be a habit, but it’s a habit I can’t get into, any more than I could get into the habit of breathing water in through my mouth and out through my gills.

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          • I can train myself to behave in a way that is outwardly consistent with love. I can kiss my wife and do nice things for her. I like her very much and I do those things all the time with little mental effort.

            But I can’t train my brain to have the neurochemical reactions of pleasure and passion that I experience when I’m interacting with my girlfriend. My girlfriend elicits that response from me without any conscious thought whatsoever on my part.

            (IRL, I’ve neither a wife nor a girlfriend at the moment, but you get the idea.)

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            • But I can’t train my brain to have the neurochemical reactions of pleasure and passion that I experience when I’m interacting with my girlfriend

              I think we can though – that we can consciously choose to think affectionate thoughts about someone on a regular basis, and that will change how we feel about them even when we’re not practicing such an “affection meditation”.

              Like, think of a friend of yours you might not have seen or thought about in a while. Don’t just think of them dispassionately, but deliberately set yourself to thinking fond, compassionate thoughts of them. Think of times you’ve seen them to be kind. Set yourself to wish for their wellbeing even if you can’t be present with them right now. Think of how pleasant it is to give them a hug, or share a coffee with them, or however you like to celebrate your time together.

              Do that regularly, consciously, develop it into a habit, and I think you will steer yourself toward feeling more love for that friend. We’re easily manipulable, and we can to some extent choose to manipulate our own minds.

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            • Love can be understood as an emotion and/or as an act of the will. I think a lot of society’s confusion about marriage these days comes from having forgotten about love as a decision. In the traditional marriage vows, the spouse promises to love as long as both shall live: how is that even possible if we’re simply viewing love as an emotion? I enjoy Monty Python and the Holy Grail each time I watch it, and I’d guess that I’ll always find it funny, but I couldn’t promise to. You can’t promise an emotion. You can promise an act of the will, though.

              I also don’t think any of us experience love simply as an emotion, either. At least not for more than 10 minutes or so. Love carries a sense of obligation with it.

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    • I’m always amused at how for some people, it’s either ‘comfort & meaning through faith’ or some variant of ‘stumbling blindly through a meaningless existence’.

      As if other healthy avenues for finding comfort and meaning are non-existent.

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            • Yes, seriously, as an individual and not in any official capacity, I would think that.

              Part of grief is frequently a bleak period, particularly a series of compounded griefs. A dark night of the soul. It is rarely the case, IME, that being poked at, even with the very holiest of intentions, is what gets someone through such a thing.

              But I have even less interest in bickering back and forth on this piece either, so if you have something more to say, feel free, I’ll withdraw from this aspect of the conversation.

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      • I agree with this sentiment. If I can pat myself on the back, one of the things I have come to embrace is the value in my own doubts. Faith is a constant struggle for me and I am endlessly re-assessing my own beliefs and trying to understand various theologies to see what resonates with me. As they say, the glory is in the struggle and I find that i think about my beliefs far more than most people who just accept their faith with little question.

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          • People say this, but the sceptic community.. man there lots of non-humble people there.

            I think its the other way around. Humility of a certain sort fosters doubt. You* can come to doubt certain things by being the sort of very smug person who confidently assert that the evidence just isn’t sufficient. And then feel very proud of yourself for not being one of the sheeple.

            I can say that I am that sort of guy and there are times when I can be more or less abrasive about it. I most definitely have been that guy before and dispositionally

            *not you personally

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            • That leads back to the idea of True Objection, doesn’t it? If the evidence isn’t sufficient, can a person articulate what evidence would be sufficient? If such evidence is presented, do the goal posts move?

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              • The question of a true rejection is irrelevant. Suppose I am being very good about what my true rejection is, and I really will change my beliefs in response to the evidence if it were ever presented to me. I could still be very non-humble. Suppose I, with very good justification, thought very highly of my own reasoning capabilities. There seems to be no good reason for me to be humble about anything (epistemically speaking).

                Maybe its a Sturgeon’s law thing. 90% of everything is shit. So, 90% of people who think that they are the shit at reasoning are in fact shit at reasoning. So, if you think you’re good at reasoning, you’re probably not. But if this is the argument for humility, that seems to have little to do with doubt. Except in the rather trivial sense that humility just is a matter of doubting your own reasoning faculties. But if that’s true, doubt doesn’t foster humility, a certain kind of doubt just is humility.

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                  • But what good is humility? Sturgeon’s law seems too strong. If we all ought to think we are shit at reasoning, because 90% of us are and we couldn’t tell from the inside, what are those of us who are actually good at it supposed to do? We want reasoning to be a way to bootstrap our way to roughly accurate beliefs. But if its to be able to do that, good pieces of reasoning need to be able to ratify their own goodness even if it appears, from the perspective of bad reasoners that their bad reasoning is good.

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                    • May as well ask what good is science.

                      Every conclusion in science is provisional, tentative, and subject to subsequent revision based upon superior evidence, superior analysis, superior experimentation, or invalidation of an underlying postulate. And tons of people don’t understand it at all.

                      Nevertheless, science (and thus reason) remains our best available tool to understand the universe in a meaningful way and the best available compass for creating and doing things that are useful and beneficial.

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                      • Every conclusion in science is provisional, tentative, and subject to subsequent revision based upon superior evidence, superior analysis, superior experimentation, or invalidation of an underlying postulate.

                        If humility just meant that treating our conclusions tentatively the way science treats things tentatively then it isn’t much of anything at all. While settled science is still in principle held tentatively, people in practice don’t think that there is any significant chance of it being wrong (or too far from the truth even if strictly speaking not perfectly accurate). It hardly warrants “on shaky ground” kind of talk.

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          • I think there are two kinds of doubt, that of oneself and that of one’s principles. A healthy mind can move from doubt about the nature of reality toward a greater confidence, but remain doubtful of one’s own merits.

            There’s a point of reference I often make in political conversations, as a former Pennsylvanian: Senator Arlen Specter. Most people say that moderates are more bi-partisan, but he wasn’t. He was the nastiest partisan you’d ever see, and when he changed parties, he’d be just as nasty, and when he changed again, the same. He didn’t believe in anything but himself. I think that applies to the conversation we’re having here, that it’s important to believe in something and do your best to make sure that it’s true, but never treat yourself as superior.

            The twist comes when you believe that the quality of your beliefs depends entirely on the quality of your reasoning. Scientists don’t fall into this, because they build their positions on the sum total knowledge that others have collected. Likewise, religious believers don’t fall into this if they recognize some external authority, or if they consider faith to be a step into the unknown. They’re not relying solely on their proficiencies.

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            • That holds true for science and faith if the authority is followed despite personal biases.

              If the thinking on, say, climate change, shifted, and the science minded held firm to old beliefs; or if church authorities shifted on gay marriage, and people abandoned that church for another that maintained the old attitudes, then they are placing their personal above the authority.

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  7. Perhaps this is due to your experience as a (recovering) litigator, but I find the attention and focus on the literal (more properly, at the expense of all other available interpretations) to be quite astounding.
    Burt, you are blind in one eye.

    Seriously, what do you hope to attain with literalism as your primary tool?
    Consider yourself, man.

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      • I understand you to mean that literally.

        In reference to the OP.

        Perhaps it is in the telling of it.
        There seems to be, foremost, a consideration of events, the literalist, collection of atoms aspect of it, and very little as to actual meaning.

        You are flesh and blood, as am I.
        What do you mean, down in your blood?
        What is the meaning of this?

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        • Your answer is right there, , though I regret that it displeases you.

          If and when you should find yourself in a similar circumstance, perhaps your experience will be different than mine; and in such event, I wish you a fast and full healing.

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          • : It neither pleases nor displeases me.
            I see little that could cut either way.
            I note a certain dynamic.

            The tendency to stake out the literalist, collection-of-atoms interpretation is not limited to your own experience, but it has taken some prominence in whether you can find significance in religious icons; i.e., you understand those religious icons to be collections of atoms, and interpret the stories literally.
            This has little to do with circumstance.

            I find the physical aspect of man to be especially resilient.
            If it is your concern that my body may not heal properly, you have little to worry about.

            As far as healing goes, this is a day of some significance to me.

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  8. This was very well-written. I know that strangeness. When my grandfather went, he had been away from the Church for some years, and so my Uncle’s priest gave the eulogy not having met him. It sounded like a mad-lib or something. I told my ex-wife if I went first to give him false information for the form he was using. “Rufus cared deeply about his work, which was selling crack to schoolchildren…”

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