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Kwanzaa 2015: Nia (Purpose)

Myth 150Why are we here? The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you believe. Many people believe that we’re here to reflect the glory of God and praise His creation; there are a lot of different ways to do that, but if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life that’s a good thing. Others believe that there isn’t a purpose to life; we’re here to survive long enough to pass on our genes, make the human race stronger in the next generation, and that’s it. Again — if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life, more power to you.

Personally, I believe there’s no inherent purpose to life, no grand design. But far from being a depressing realization, I find it’s actually liberating and exciting. Because that means we get to make our own, tailor-made to our temperament and experience. We can decide how we will spend our lives, what we want to leave behind as our legacy, and what we’ll be remembered for. The objective purpose of life is to find our own purpose, and once having done that, work towards it to the best of our ability.

The principle we’re focusing on today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, is Nia or Purpose. According to Dr. Maulana Karenga, this means “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.” That’s a concept I can get behind, actually — how awesome would it be to lift African civilization and the African diaspora to great renown? How great would it be for our culture to be known the world over as the most advanced, responsible and utopian in human history? The more I think about it, the more I would love to see more stories featuring Black Panther’s Wakanda — an Afrocentric culture that has dedicated itself to achieving as much as possible.

We don’t have many stories like that, in fiction or in real life. Positive steps towards uplifting our communities aren’t reported very often; peaceful protests, community clean-up initiatives, organized benefits don’t get the same kind of air time that disruptive things do. In America, stories featuring black people far too often revolve around death and poverty. In Africa, all we know of the continent is sickness, war, famine and death. We think of it as the continent of the Four Horsemen, a hellish landscape where there is never enough to eat and mortality is a daily fact of life.

Chimamana Ngozi Adichie tells us about the danger of a single story here. She writes about an Africa most people in the West never see, and encourages us to think about the people and the continent in a more holistic way. Yes, there are warlords and corruption, famine and sickness, but there are also people who are doing everything they can to make their world better. There are thinkers and creative people; friendly, hard-working dreamers; people who are proud of their community, tribe, country and continent. Africa is an immense place. It is diverse, wonderful, and so much more than most of us know.

The purpose I’ve found in life is to encourage people to become more connected with the world around them, more accepting of their fellow human beings, more comfortable with change and differences. What I want more than anything is to initiate and continue dialogues that allow us to know each other better, foster empathy that lets us step outside of our own experience to genuinely see things from another perspective. I want to understand you. And I want you to understand people like me. Humanity is a social species, and we are at our best when we come together for a common purpose.

So much about the black experience — and the human experience — is about alienation and disenfranchisement. The most dangerous thing I see about our future is giving ourselves over to apathy and disconnection, this idea that “as long as I’ve got mine, that’s all that matters.” We do not exist alone. We exist inextricably connected to an immense and complicated framework of socio-political, environmental and interpersonal factors. We are affected by the actions of our fellow man. Everything we do affects someone else.

A lot of us who have grown up being bullied or ostracized internalize the idea that we don’t matter. We grow up really believing we’re alone, and that it’s entirely possible no one would miss us if we disappeared. We think that the consequences of our actions, such as they are, are ours alone and no one else has to worry about them. We feel so powerless and small, and can’t possibly understand how each and every one of us has the power to shape our world — and the responsibility to use that power wisely.

My purpose is to use that power to the most positive end I can manage. I’m still learning the full shape and force of it, and I’m still learning the limits of it. I still need to learn how to use it responsibly. But that’s the thrust of my existence; I have my entire life to learn this. And I’m genuinely excited to do that.

What’s your purpose? How are you fulfilling it? What are you doing to contribute to the restoration of greatness for the human race? This isn’t a judgement question: I really want to know. What do you think about your purpose?

Have a solid Kwanzaa, everyone. I’ve been sick for the past few days, but developing a writing habit in the mornings has been something I very much look forward to. I’ll check in with all of you tomorrow.

 
 

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What I Believe

Myth 150Over the long weekend I watched two very different movies that touched on the same theme. One of them was a religious drama written and directed by Robert Duvall, a true passion project if ever I saw one. It was called The Apostle. The other was very much a product of its time — a light and fluffy wish-fulfillment movie that was big about fifteen years ago. I’m talking about that modern classic, Practical Magic. Though they’re both on just about polar opposites of subject matter, religious inspiration and pop culture niche, they both twinged something that resides deep within me. I wasn’t expecting that, so I had to think it through.

In The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a white Southern preacher known as Sonny to his friends. Right from the beginning you see that he’s a true believer; he wades into the chaos of a car accident, and the first thing he does when he finds one of the victims is minister to him. It’s a fascinating scene that does a wonderful job of establishing how deeply Sonny’s faith motivates him; it really is nothing less than the foundation of his character. Sonny’s entire life is geared towards his faith. Everything that happens is attributed to God (or Satan); everything that he enjoys can be connected to the Church. Soon you find out that Sonny isn’t quite what he appears to be, and the movie becomes interesting in a different way. But for that first act where we’re getting to meet him for the first time, I was totally arrested.

My entire family belonged to a black Southern church, except for us (we were Jehovah’s Witnesses). When someone died in my family, we didn’t have a funeral — we had a “homegoing celebration”. For someone who hasn’t been to a traditional Southern church service and has no idea what to expect, the liveliness can be disconcerting. Speaking as an outsider, it’s fascinating watching a mass hysteria wash over the crowd. The preacher is like a conductor, managing the ebb and flow of the energy in the room, and when he decides to turn it up to 11 it’s really something to see.

The movie filled me with an unexpected homesickness. There’s a reason that I got out of my home environment and I’ll never forget what it was, but there’s something strangely comforting about being around people who can be true believers. They live their lives with a fervor that’s infectious. They’ve rooted themselves to an ideal that gives them strength. While it’s true that many of them use that strength to do terrible things, it doesn’t always turn out that way. There are many people I remember fondly from my Jehovah’s Witness days, that I think are wonderful people, that have used their faith to really push themselves to become better.

When I left the faith of my childhood I was adrift for a while, and looking for something different. I had actually found Wicca well before I left home, and dabbled in practicing it. But college is where I really embraced it — wearing the pentacle, painting my fingernails black (that had nothing to do with Wicca, but it helped with the image), leading my school’s Pagan Student Union for a time. There was actually a small but thriving Wiccan community around my college that I got into, and found myself embedded with another group of true believers.

One of the things that drew me to Wicca was the idea that spirit flows through all things, shapeless and formless, and it’s all around you always. Your belief and will can help to shape that spirit, and the more people who direct their will towards a symbol or idea, the more powerful it becomes. The God and Goddess fulfill the same functions in the universe, and you can imagine them any way you wanted to, but for most people it would be the Earth Mother and the Horned God.

If I wanted to, I could surround myself with the symbolism of nature and work my will towards becoming attuned to it. Wicca really is a way to reposition yourself so that you have a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world, and that part is appealing as well. It’s surprisingly open; according to Wicca, casting a spell and praying to Jesus is the same thing, simply working your will towards a desired effect. As Sonny said in The Apostle: “You do it your way and I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?”

Watching Practical Magic took me right back to my college days, wanting to believe that I could will something into existence, that the first step to making change in the world was simply wanting it, then acting on that desire. And it reminded me that my history is filled with communities of believers, and that’s something that I don’t have now.

Am I poorer for it, not actively believing in something beyond what I can see? Over time I’ve developed my spirituality into something of an agnostic animism. I still carry the vague belief that a spirit inhabits everything, that it’s formless and takes on the properties of the will around it. But at the same time I realize that my belief could be just bullshit, an amusing fantasy that helps me make sense of a world that is senseless. If you peel back my agnosticism, you’ll find a powerful, existential drive. Reality is actually meaningless, and it’s my job as a sapient being to infuse it with any meaning I can.

I have the desire to believe, but none of the tools to do so. The reason I eventually left Wicca is that I knew I couldn’t invest in the community; I’d never be able to believe as hard as everyone else did in what they were doing. I thought it would be a nice way to pass the time, but the moment it got difficult or inconvenient, I’d cast aside the ideal.

So what DO I believe in? If I don’t actually hold stock in the fictions I create to make sense of the world, what is there?

I honestly don’t know. I have a suspicion, though, that this life is all there is and afterwards there’s nothing else. I could become some of that formless spirit-stuff after my body ceases to function, or my spirit could actually move on to some sort of after-life. Since there’s no way for me to know, there’s no way I can count on it being true. I can’t let the hope of something like that influence my behavior.

Since this life is all there is, I believe that we should make it good. I believe that humans are social creatures, and that we can’t really get along without forming clans, communities, groups of people we depend on. I believe that part of what it means to be a good person is improving the community around you, whatever it is. If you work in McDonald’s, your coworkers and customers are part of a community. Make it better. If you’re part of a bowling league on Tuesday nights, your friends and opponents are part of a community. Make it better. If you have a neighborhood grocery store that you go to once a week, the people there are part of your community. Make it better.

I believe that we only have what we have, and each other. Why shouldn’t we make our communities as great as possible? My life’s work is making my world a better place, in big ways and small. Hopefully, I can work towards dedicating more and more of my actions to it. I want to become as devoted to my ideal as Sonny was to his.

I’d like to believe that there’s a heaven that we go to after we die, or that there really is magic in the world, waiting for us to discover and shape it. But I can’t, any more than I can believe I’m actually a rabbit trapped in a man’s body typing this out to you. All I can believe in is what’s in front of me, and you, reading this, right now. Let’s make a community of it.

So…what can we do to make that better?

 

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