Don't Assume I'm A Sensitive Soul

I received this email from a woman the other day. After careful thought I replied to it and decided it was worth sharing.

Here is the email in its entirety:

Thank you for sharing “Wild Geese”. After Joe Biden used most of this poem as his reflection upon the anniversary of 9/11, I went in search of the poem. The two of Mary Oliver’s collections I own did not include it. I was happy to find it at your site and amazed, actually. Amazed and delighted, because a poem I find so “religious” is at the same time such a balm for you. I grew up Roman Catholic; I am now an Episcopal priest. I am convinced after 20 years that what most people throw away – the cats they heave – are indeed worth heaving. Sometimes we have to go deeper, below the interpretations of history, to find our own deeper truth.

Yes, a “barbarous” God exists in the pages of the Bible: What all-kind God and Father would will the death of a Beloved Son? How could God command Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a test of faith? Isn’t that sadistic? Yes, indeed. On the face of it. For us in the 21st century these stories are barbaric. They are foreign to our experience. They were not foreign to the persons for whom they were written when the “first fruits” in ancient societies were offered up to the deity – including in some cases, the first born child. In some places in later writings there seems to be a critique of these practices in the Bible itself. The question becomes, it seems to me, is it worth reinterpreting these stories for our own time, or do we jettison them and replace them with our own stories of sacrificial obedience and love? Yes, life does involve sacrifice – we give up our children constantly to the gods of war who exact a savage price. There are no rams in the thicket to take their place …

But the same source of barbarism comments on itself in texts of amazing love and mercy. We cannot hear these texts enough.

I hope the love, mercy is what you kept when you threw away the dead cat of guilt and the burdens of all that teaching that depressed and suffocated you. If you are still seeking a metaphor or metaphors for the love that is the universe and your place in it, Mary Oliver’s poetry surely hints at it in all its complexity. It is worth the search if you are willing to expand your conversation to include persons who have made a transition through the grief and disillusion you have experienced.

You have purified your heart. You have surrounded yourself with friends eager to share what they’ve rejected. Is it time to resume the search for what you seek and share what you have found as a replacement that has enriched you spiritually, given you new life? Perhaps you have done so.

Please forgive me if I’ve “pried” too much or presumed too much. You are obviously a sensitive soul. Thank you again for sharing a favorite poem.

And here is my reply:

Thank you for your email. I'm glad you enjoyed Wild Geese. It's a great poem. Funny that you find it religious. It seems very anti-religious to me, which is why I like it. I guess it's down to interpretation. I also think you are very presumptuous with your assumptions of me. My character is not nearly as weak as you suggest. The poem is not a balm to me. I find it inspirational, but I don't need to be soothed by it. I find it delightful. Perhaps it might be best to not assume what others are thinking and maybe just ask them.

You immediately go into apologetics with your loose, cherry-picked interpretations of the bible. If a caring, loving god inspired the words of the bible, I'm sure slavery would not have been condoned, nor the rape of daughters, nor the hatred of your own family (that was Jesus, by the way. How loving was that?) If it can't be taken literally, then the whole book is just about how you interpret it, which means it can mean anything, which means it's completely worthless as a guide. It IS completely worthless as a guide anyway. It was written in the middle east in the iron age by goat herders. It has zero relevance for today. It is filled with hate and murder with the occasional rape. Lovely. How you can find anything worthwhile in there is beyond me.

What little bit of "wisdom" in the bible is not original or new. The Golden Rule? Older than Jesus. He didn't come up with it. If he even existed, which is highly doubtful.

So no, it isn't worth reinterpreting those fables into stories for our own time. We don't need them. They fuel hate in people who interpret them literally, and just confuse good people who think they are the word of their god. They are completely useless to society.

And no, why do we need to replace them with more sacrificial obedience? Why do you need that? How is that healthy to anyone? Love, sure. We can all use love. But the bible is very thin in that department. Give me a book like The Golden Compass. That has love. And even sacrifice for the good of all mankind. A great epic story with no mixed messages to confuse people. It even has god.

Life involves compromise and sometimes sacrifice. But teaching children ethics, critical thinking and basic philosophy while giving them love will give them the structure they need to build their own moral code. Not one based on blind obedience and fear of eternal damnation if they make a mistake. How could a loving god torture his creation for all eternity just because they aren't blindly worshiping him? He needs some serious psychotherapy. That's insane.

I kept nothing from the bible or my early indoctrination into christianity. I have jettisoned the guilt and fear. There was no love to be had. There was only that blind sacrificial obedience you mentioned. That is not love. That is sickness.

And you presumed again that it depressed and suffocated me. I find that offensive that you would presume to know me. Do you talk to your parishioners with such condescension? Why not ask someone what they are thinking instead of arrogantly assuming. I did not experience grief. Although of course I was disillusioned by the lies of religion.

Shaking off the lies of the church, ridding myself of that sick pack of lies was the most liberating, uplifting, positive step I've ever taken.

Again, you presume that I am seeking some great truth. How patronizing. For me, the completely natural workings of the universe inspire and awe me daily. That is my truth and I am quite happy to explore it often. I don't need to find some god or false belief in a supreme being, or the ridiculous reward of an afterlife. I am happy to have nature in all its complexity. Science is fantastic. That's all I need. It's quite satisfying to rid myself of superstitions and myths. You should try it. It's quite liberating. Maybe it will help you to ask people their feelings and thoughts instead of filtering what you think they experience through your own worldview.

Oh, and you don't know who my friends are either. Again with the presumptions. I guess you probably don't think I"m a sensitive soul anymore. Well, when someone I've never met claims to know me so intimately, I get a bit irritated. I don't have a soul. Neither do you. Live this life for today, not for a future promise which doesn't exist.

I'm glad you enjoyed the poem. But just because I like it too, obviously for very different reasons, doesn't mean I think like you or share your delusions.

I hope someday you too can shake off the shackles of blind faith, sacrificial obedience, repression and future rewards for constant servitude.

Have a great day!


  1. "If it can’t be taken literally, then the whole book is just about how you interpret it, which means it can mean anything, which means it’s completely worthless as a guide."

    Indeed. The way a person interprets religious texts (or in many cases rationalizes the content of them to maintain a sense of connection to their particular ingroup, rather than interprets) says more about them than it does about the texts.

    The idea that atheism must stem from a traumatic experience seems to be somewhat common, and you are right on, that this viewpoint is arrogant and condescending. Piety and certainty seems to blind people to the fact that many atheists simply do not see any reason to believe in something for which there is no evidence of its existence, much less base their actions on such a thing. In case she's reading this, I would like to make it clear that my previously held beliefs did not make me feel either depressed or suffocated. My only psychological disturbance related to shedding the last vestiges of belief in the supernatural came in the form of fear of social acceptance, mainly the fear that admitting my lack of belief would hurt or frighten some of my friends and family members, and possibly alienate them from me.

    I am also not looking for some great truth to reveal itself. I enjoyed Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" as much as the next person, and think the similarities we share in our experiences as humans are often beautiful and profound, but it's completely ignorant to assume that in order to appreciate this, you must believe in the existence of some great ultimate truth, and work toward finding it.

    And having followed your posts, the comment suggesting you're not already willing to "expand your conversation" to include, well, anyone really, is annoying to read, just so very off the mark. You have consistently shown willingness to engage others in conversation, perhaps she doesn't know this. Or perhaps she feels that expanding your conversation means letting people drown you in pious woo while remaining in respectful silence rather than actually addressing them point for point.

  2. Good reply!

    I always found religion to be suffocating and depressing. Especially the "burn in hell, forever" part It was an extremely liberating feeling when I "jettisoned" it, too. And I didn't think the poem was "religious." She seemed condescending and assumed that we are all "on a higher journey." I'm not journeying to find a hidden truth, I'm looking to experience this life, while it happens. This isn't a dress rehearsal.

  3. Thanks for the confirmation, Mike. I agree with you. This one precious life is awesome and amazing. I don't need hidden truths, except maybe to learn how bacteria do all the cool things they do. Nature is amazing and interesting. I don't need fairy tales to get me through the day, or promises of things after I die.
    It was suffocating, you're right. I am much happier as a godless heathen. :)

  4. Thanks for posting, Neece, as always! The "something traumatic" CAN be there. It is, in my case, but that isn't all there is to it.
    I finally realized that by trying to rationalize the good & evil that happens with god & satan, I was making myself miserable, or at least less happy than I could be. When I decided to throw off the shackles of "faith" and "religion", I felt freer than I had in a long time.
    I, also, love Wild Geese. To me, it means that I don't have to beat myself up. What I needed to do was allow myself to live, love, and enjoy life. When I did that, my heart opened up again. My boyfriend says he noticed a difference in me after that.
    Since this is the only life I get, I want to live it to the fullest. I don't need a life after this life to make this one fulfilling.

  5. Hi Angie!
    Yes, I agree, religion can be extremely traumatic. When I was a kid I was so afraid of burning in hell I got baptized 3 times. But that's nothing compared to the real trauma and horror the church in all its forms can perpetrate on people, especially innocent children. I'm sorry your experience was so horrible.

    Wild Geese, to me, is exactly about tearing off the shackles of religion. "You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting."

    That sounds exceedingly anti-religious to me and that's why I love it. How that could be seen as religious is beyond me. But how a person can believe in a talking snake is also a mystery to me.

    And yes, knowing this is my only life makes it that much more precious.