Last year, I lost a friend I had had since we were 12 years old. I made a crack about someone misbehaving in her religion, and she went off the deep end. It was then I realized–she still thought it was my religion.
Being a non-believer, unless you’re a militant atheist, means keeping your mouth shut–a lot. My parents don’t know I’m a non-believing Buddhist (secular Buddhist) because they are very old, and would be crushed if they were told I no longer believed in God. The same goes for many of my elderly relatives. Simply put, they don’t have enough time left to work through their grief over my non-belief. In this case, my silence is a kindness. Not because I don’t want to be truthful with them, but because I know them, and I know what hurts them.
People in my community don’t know because I live in a small town, and I’ve instructed my kids to keep mum, as well. Shunning is alive and well in America’s small towns. Just ask anyone who’s gay in the South. And, to be honest on that front, I’m not sure casual acquaintances should really be delving into each other’s spiritual lives. Frankly, I think a lot of the problems people are having is because their opinions are so “out there.”
But this woman, this was a different thing. I met her in middle school, and we stayed friends all through high school, marriage(s), children, everything. And over the last few years, she and her husband have been swinging really far to the Right, politically, to the extent that during the last Presidential election, her husband unfriended me because I was putting up pro-Obama posts on FB. Once he added me back, all seemed semi-well, although I could see her Right-wing opinions gaining steam. I realized that was not a topic we wanted to talk about. Still, there was plenty of other things to talk about, we each have three kids, we each work out of the home, and there was the past. Decades of the past. And all went okay until I made that crack. And it wasn’t even directly to her. She had somehow found a third-party thread that I had made a comment on days before. I hadn’t linked to it or anything. So I thought I was “safe.” Well, I wasn’t.
When I saw the ferocity of her message to me, one thing was clear: I couldn’t fix this without un-becoming who I am. After a few months to ruminate, I did send a lengthy email to her husband, (who had told my husband he hoped we wouldn’t stay mad at each other much longer) laying out exactly who we are. And we’re not bad people, by the way. Non-believers, yes. Cynical, yes. But known everywhere we live as the work-hard-for-the-community family, or the give-the-shirt-off-their-backs family. Because we (don’t) believe the way we believe, we understand how urgent each day is, and how important it is to improve something each day, whether it be the lot of a shelter dog, a friend who needs help renovating his house, getting some food to the food bank. We KNOW each day is precious and finite, and we don’t want to waste a single one. And, to be fair, they’re not bad people, either. I was never angry with my friend for her outburst, because I understand the power of the paradigms many people operate under. Some of my friends are in religions so enmeshed that if they dared defect, they could lose their spouses, their children, their extended families, and for darned sure their friends.
But, this was the first time it had happened to me. Sure, I had stopped moving forward on some newer friendships because I could see how it would go if I was honest. I could hear the disdain for people they thought were other than myself in their voices. Because my children attended a religious school (which was, by far, the best in the area), they assumed. And, to be fair, I didn’t correct them. But at the same time, I have never lied about being a believer, either. I just kept silent.
Which is what I had done with my friend. Through summer vacation visits, to be fair, religion just wasn’t discussed. And, we hadn’t visited her since her shift from a moderate to an ardent believer.
Since then, I have been posting more about my Buddhism, and my non-belief via subtle things that pop up on FB. They’re the parts of Buddhism anyone can agree on, but as they rack up, I am seeing who is still here, who is falling off. Honestly, I haven’t noticed that much of a difference. One of my friends sent me a sand Buddha one holiday. I get likes from people whom I was getting along with better, anyway. Which makes sense.
I think what I learned is that with certain friendships, those that are cured by time, that are more than casual, I need to put out there who I am and then, ironically, take a leap of faith. And to remember that change is the one thing in this life that you can always count on. A friend you may have had for decades may simply go in a totally different direction than you. It happens. It’s sad. And I have mourned its loss, because it’s important to have people who knew you when you were a child, though it’s simply not always possible. I thought we would be friends forever. I didn’t anticipate her sharp turn one way, and I’m sure she didn’t anticipate mine. I didn’t share my spiritual views with her, because I knew the reaction I would get (which I did), but I should have. That part of the fault is mine. I took responsibility and wrote that email, leaving absolutely nothing out, because the situation had gotten to that point. I should have done it sooner and trusted things to go how they were supposed to. So, I am changing how I interact with people in the future.
Non-believers are often silent, not because they are ashamed of who they are, but because they are afraid of the reaction they’re going to get from believers. They have a history of rejection, either personally, or based upon how they have seen other non-believers treated. Or, they may not want yet another lecture or sales pitch on the error of their ways. Trust me, we’ve all heard it over, and over, and over again. Still, others stay silent out of respect for the beliefs of others, knowing full well that respect may not extend back the other direction. Oftentimes, we’re just tired. Tired of it being assumed that because we’re non-believers, we don’t have morals, or the ability to know right from wrong, or can’t find purpose in a finite life, or, or, or. It’s mentally exhausting, so many, like me, have deigned to live their lives as an example.
And with all the lip service out there from people who act in a completely counterintuitive way, I think people of all beliefs could do a little more of the money-where-the-mouth is thing.