TO CELEBRATE THE OCTOBER RELEASE OF MY BOOK THRASHING ABOUT WITH GOD, AND TO EXPAND THE CONVERSATION BEYOND MYSELF, I HAVE ASKED 31 BRAVE PEOPLE TO SHARE A GUEST POST WITH THE THEME OF #IAMTHRASHING. THESE ARE PEOPLE I HAVE PERSONALLY DIALOGUED WITH, PEOPLE WHO I KNOW HAVE RISKED A LOT TO WRESTLE WITH THE HARD STUFF THAT COMES WITH SPIRITUALITY. OUR FAITH MAY NOT LOOK LIKE YOURS, BUT WE WELCOME YOU TO THE DISCUSSION.
My revelation came while brushing my teeth. Moments of solitude in the bathroom often lend themselves to the most profound thoughts and far reaching imaginary journeys, yes? It was late and I was brushing my teeth, staring at myself in the mirror, froth from the toothpaste running down my chin. I was eighteen and a counselor at a Christian summer camp, where I had gone every summer since I was five or six.
As a child, I went for the multi-acre games of Capture the Flag, the horses, and eventually, the girls. As a counselor, I went for the the friends I’d made, the amazing and often belly-laugh-worthy experiences with the campers, and, of course, the female counselors. One in particular. Throughout it all, I treasured the camp traditions: singing by candlelight at a night gathering at the Chapel by the Lake, the hilarious reenactments of stories like Shadrach, Caddyshack, and Ford Pinto, the sense of togetherness and unity that community worship can create.
Because of these experiences at camp, I had identified as a Christian since my spiritual awakening in adolescence. I believed in God. I sometimes prayed before bed. I even, shortly after discovering swearing, promised God I would stop swearing. I talked to God regularly; not that I thought I was holding an actual conversation with the Almighty, he’d be far too busy to coach me through the slings and arrows of puberty personally. These were imagined conversations, which I believed to be divinely inspired, or at least monitored to some extent like customer service at a call center. Through these conversations, I found good counsel and comfort.
I started attending camp at such a young age, it took me years to put it into a religious context. I was in high school by the time I realized I was going to a Christian summer camp. It had always just been summer camp to me. A couple years later, however, alone in the bathhouse after my campers had been coerced into their sleeping bags, I realized that there was a label for the growing cognitive dissonance I was feeling during the more religious of the camp traditions. I returned to my cabin and said to my co-counselor and best friend since fourth grade, “Hey ... I just realized I’m an atheist.”
“Yeah. I am too, I think,” he replied (we had, after all, been best friends for over a decade). We then stayed up most of the night waxing philosophical for the hundredth time.
Aside from camp, I also received religious education from my Unitarian Universalist church. The core principles of the Unitarian Universalism are intentionally devoid of dogma and focused rather on peaceful and constructive coexistence:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
In middle school we would spend several weeks learning about another religion, then take a field trip and attend a service at, and meet with a representative from a synagogue, mosque, Buddhist temple, etc. I believe I was in ninth grade when my classmates and I were each handed a stack of paper. Separated by color were words from Jesus, the Ten Commandments, selections from Quran, quips from Confucius, lessons from Buddha, and so on until the last color in the stack was an assortment of sayings, quotes, and philosophies from a grab bag of wise men, women, and cultures throughout history; the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, Nietzsche, Sartre, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mother Theresa, Dalai Lama XIV, etc. Then we were each handed a pair of scissors, a glue stick, and a stack of blank white paper and instructed to compile our own, individual sacred text. Mine was quite the rainbow.
Sadly, I have no idea in which landfill that book is being perfectly preserved, but more valuable than the product was the process. At this point, my guiding principles are built from the wisdom of authors, philosophers, scientists, and researchers from around the world and throughout history. My sense of morality is inspired by cause and effect. The vastness of space and the wonders it contains comfort me in facing mortality. The scope of the universe and the probability of a “multiverse” humbles me by making the utter insignificance of my life in the grand scheme of existence clear while simultaneously inspiring and empowering me to give my life meaning and purpose - because I am the only one who can.
Best of all, everything I believe or feel to be true is subject to challenge by new information, whether new to the cumulative bank of all human knowledge, or simply new to me. Everything I believe is subject to challenge by the people in my life, as we all have different personal histories and experiences which lead to different perceptions and interpretations of the world. With everything that I learn, I have to reevaluate and reexamine. When I find new information to be logically or ethically inconsistent with my beliefs, I have to change. I embrace these challenges and the personal revolutions they incite. This type of change is personal growth, and the goal is for it never to end.
Andrew Coil was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and attended Ohio University in Athens where he earned his BFA in Theatrical Performance. He now lives in Chicago and works as an actor, musician, and stagehand.