The Current State of My Spirituality

About 10 months ago, I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Somewhere around the middle of that monster book, my world fell apart.

Most of my friends are Christians. A lot of them have been a part of the church their entire lives. Most of them, however, came to Jesus at some point during high school. I fell in the middle of that spectrum. I came to Jesus as a middle school student. I wasn’t born into the church, but I did a lot of growing up there.

In February of 2007, my family moved to Billings, MT. This was the third time I’d switched schools that year. Lockwood Middle School treated me well enough, I suppose, but middle school sucks for everyone. I’m not really sure throwing a bunch of early teenagers going through puberty together for 30 hours a week is that good of an idea. I made friends though. I was lucky enough to come across a group of really accepting guys. They were in that in-between stage between the uber-“popular” (which isn’t a realistic description, but it does get the point across), and the kids that stayed away from everyone. Basically, if you had a small amount of social skills and a little bit of decency, you were in.

However, 13-year-olds are not very good at teaching you about life. I needed the guidance sorely missing from my group of friends. Enter: my uncle.

My uncle Greg is a great man. He has been as long as I’ve known him. I honestly don’t know how this came about, but around that time I saw he was heavily involved in the church. It interested me, and I asked him to start taking me to church. Maybe I was just looking for someone to guide me through the turmoil of adolescence. Maybe it was God prompting something within me. I’m not sure right now.

My uncle said he would. The effort and dedication that this took is impressive and requires a bit of explaining to understand. My uncle lived near downtown Billings. I lived on the far end of Lockwood, a suburb, meaning I was about a 15-minute drive from his house. The church we went to was on the other end of town, about a 25-minute drive from my house. Twice a week, my uncle would pick me up, take me to church, then take me home. If you do the math, that’s a bit over 2 and half hours of driving each week just so I could go to church. This was extremely important to him. And for 13-year-old me, having someone show that much dedication to me was huge.

I went to a middle school youth group, which was full of games, pizza, candy, and enough Jesus to cause some serious changes in my outlook on life. I had friends at church as well, and these were Christian friends, meaning that they believed the same things I did, had the same standards on what was acceptable and what wasn’t, and I could talk about anything with, because since they were Christians, I knew the wouldn’t judge me.

I ate up everything I could relating to Jesus. I was doing devotionals as often as I could. I went to every church event possible. I discovered and ate up an entire new genre of books classified as Christian self-help. My mentors, pastor, and these books were right about everything.

This continued and intensified through high-school. I found it harder and harder to connect with non-Christians. Consciously or not, the church was telling me that being around these guys was dangerous, and that I might be led astray, so I’d better be careful around them. Extreme caution is not a good foundation for friendships. The same went for worldly things, which I interpreted to mean everything not labeled Christian. This led to an emphatic two-week fundamentalist stage for me, during which I threw away my Harry Potter books because they contained witchcraft. I quickly regretted that decision.

I think most of this was us looking for answers, me and the rest of the high-school students at youth group. We didn’t know or understand life, and it appeared these adults at youth group did. They said the way was Jesus, and that was done best when complemented with this way of living.

I need to be clear here. I still love and respect these people, and I thank them for everything they did for me. At youth group, I found guidance, knowledge, and some legitimate wisdom about life. It’s just now I’m not sure everything they taught meets that criteria.

During the second half of high school, I was beginning to find a more relational way of going about this Jesus thing. It wasn’t about doing things the right way; it was about having a relationship with Jesus.

Evangelical Christianity tends to emphasize emotion, which is like a drug to confused teenagers. These extreme emotions I was having were me experiencing God. At least the good ones were. And I was always looking for another high.

It was around the time I graduated high-school that I really began to examine things for myself. I moved out a few weeks after graduation, and being in charge of myself had me looking at the world through new eyes. I started digging into the Bible, and really examining it, to find answers and truth. I also discovered a lot of ideals and ideas that I believed in through secular (read: non-Christian) authors. And so the tension began.

Over the next couple of years, I continued to learn more about myself. I began to really look up to and be inspired by this people who weren’t Christians. I saw that these people were happy and were living good and meaningful lives. I also began to notice all the Christians that weren’t. The tension builds.

All of this was happening subconciously without me really being aware of it. And then last summer, I read Atlas Shrugged. Something about that book broke my inner world. Or at least made me think it did. I’m still not sure really why it happened with that book. Maybe is was that there were pieces of the beliefs presented I found myself possibly agreeing with that definitely went against what Christianity taught. Maybe it was just the first time I really saw a belief system without God that made sense. I don’t know. Either way, I was free-falling.

For a couple of weeks, everything was horrible and depressing and nothing mattered anymore because I didn’t believe in anything anymore. After freaking out for a while, and then talking to a couple of friends, I realized things were going to be okay, and that my world wasn’t falling apart. I committed myself to begin figuring out what I did believe, and if those beliefs held up in the face of life. I comforted myself with the idea that the God I believed in welcomed questioning, and as long as I was doing this honestly and not taking easy answers, or answers convenient to me, I’d end up in the right place either way. Even if that meant I wouldn’t be a Christian anymore.

And so, over the last 10 months, I’ve done a lot thinking, examining, and have been questioning everything a bit at a time. I don’t have any solid, unalterable answers, but that’s okay. I don’t think that’s what I’m looking for. Everything’s a bit vague, but here’s what I’ve come to think so far:

What I’m going through isn’t a unique process, but rather what everyone whose honest with themselves goes through at some point. Everybody has to figure the world out for themselves. It’s only within certain groups of people that doing so is discouraged. Doing this isn’t outright discouraged by those around me in the church, but it’s not exactly encouraged either. We should encourage everybody to really, really look at the world and their lives, and to figure things out for themselves. If God is real, he must welcome this. I wouldn’t want to follow a God who doesn’t.

And so, in the interest of telling you all where my head’s at, here’s what I think at the moment:

I’m not confident either way about the existence of God. I don’t think we can prove or disprove his existence. I do think there is something spiritual in this world. I’m not sure what that is yet, whether it’s a being, a state-of-mind, another dimension, etc. I do intend to search honestly and find out.

I may or may not have had experiences with God. This kind of goes along with the above thought. Most of what I would attribute to God comes along with extreme emotion, so I can’t necessarily give those to him. I definitely have had my share of transcendental experiences, and there is a distinct quality to those.

If the Bible does hold meaning, it’s not as a book with answers, but rather a collection of stories and poems we find meaning in, just like we do with movies, books, and art in general.

I’m think evolution is probably how we came to be, rather than a 6-day creation process. What does that mean for the beginning of Genesis? I think that it means those stories are more allegorical and mythical than historical.

I’m not sure yet what the role sex plays in life. It’s obviously meaningful, and can have spiritual qualities. I find a lot of beauty in the way the romantics talk about sex. Not that it’s always life-changing, but that it’s a part of an extremely intimate connection with another human being. That being said, I’m not sure if the whole waiting till marriage thing is the way to go. I’m undecided on this.

Up to this point, my search has been a mixed bag of logic, philosophy, science, finding truth in stories and art, and winging it. I think this is probably how everyone figures out there beliefs, whether they admit or not. It’ll continue this way for a while.

About a month ago, I finally admitted to myself that I’m not a Christian anymore. I have no idea what that means for the future.

I also realized that I can look at this process two ways, and the difference between them is massive. I can see that I’m not sure what I believe and freak out because I don’t know where I am. Or, I can see that I’m not sure what I believe, and get excited, because I don’t know where I am. It’s the difference between viewing a swamp as an obstacle or an adventure. I’m going with adventure.

Seriously though, in reading this, I hope you all know that I’m still figuring it all out, probably will be for a long time, if not forever, and that’s okay. I’m wandering, but I don’t feel lost.

Me, my bike, and a life-changing year.

As of a week or so ago, it’s been officially been a year since I last used my car. Instead, I’ve been riding my bike. It’s been just me, the bike (the pedal kind), and the weather. Over the last year, I’ve learned and changed so much, and an incredible part of that has been riding my bike.

First of all, I absolutely love riding my bike. That’s the primary motivator behind this. When I get on my bike, it’s like instant therapy. It’s relaxing and keeps me centered. On days I don’t ride my bike, I seriously feel like I’m missing something. I don’t do this to preach the cycling gospel. It’s just because I love it.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to tell the story of me and my bike over the last year. We’ll start at the beginning of last November, when I began tossing around the idea of giving up my car completely.

Up until this point of the year, the weather hadn’t been too bad. It was pretty typical Montana. We had some snow mid-October, but that wasn’t unusual. I had been riding my bike off and on over the last month, and increasingly using it instead of my car. Part of this was to save money. Part of it was because I began to realize that I really, really enjoyed riding. My car came into play on the colder days, but otherwise remained dormant.

I began tossing around the idea of giving up on my car completely. It made a lot of sense to me. I loved my bike. I never really liked the effort required to own a car, rather I just like the idea of owning a car. I was only driving once or twice a week. And above all of that, I was paying more for car insurance that I was for gas. And that felt completely ridiculous.

The idea was also crazy. I live in Montana. Winters in the Big Sky State have a ton of snow and can be pretty brutal. The only usable bike I had was a cheap fixed-gear with about inch-wide tires. The roads get icy. Winters also get really freaking cold. Most days are sub-20 degrees, with a solid amount being sub-zero. How would I hang out with friends? How would I go about everyday things like buying groceries? How would I ever go on a date? What would I do when it got below zero?

I’ve come to like going against the norm over the last couple years, and that attitude was beginning to reach a fever-pitch at this point. So, I decided, “What the hell? Let’s try it.” (Yes, I often talk to myself as if I’m a group of people.) I figured I could always go back to using my car.

It wasn’t too hard at first. I still was using my car on the really cold days, because I was still a bit of a wuss. One day mid-December though, that option stopped existing.

I was feeling a bit bored, so I did what I always do when I’ve got nothing going on. I went to Off the Leaf. I was talking to my friend Jackie, who worked there, about desiring adventure. She challenged me to go find my own adventure. The more I thought about that line, the more I realized I had just been complaining about my lack of creativity. So I decided to change that with a drive to Molt.

Molt is a tiny town that is about 25 miles from Billings. There’s a gorgeous driving loop you can do that takes about an hour. I drove out to Molt, and was about halfway home when I missed a slight curve in the road. The roads were icy, so when I hit the brakes, I ended up sliding into a ditch.

So, what’s the very first thing I do? I call Jackie, laughing, and tell her how I’ve found my adventure. That’s me, always doing the practical thing. I eventually end up getting pulled out by a stranger.

In the midst of getting pulled out, my passenger-side front tire gets shredded. So I put the donut on and examine the front of my car. The right side of the bumper is destroyed and the radiator’s cracked. I thank the stranger, and begin driving home. I get around halfway there before my car begins to overheat. My mom and her boyfriend come pick me up, and I drive the car the rest of the way home the next day.

Basically, at this point, my car is toast. I decide this is a sign I shouldn’t be driving it anyways, and leave it to die.

I decide at this point that since the decision to ride my bike is my choice alone, that I alone should bear the consequences of it. Basically, I decide not to be a mooch. I commit to never ask for a ride, to never be reliant on another for getting around. I also knew however, that I love it when people take me up on my generosity, so I decide not to turn down the generosity of others. So, I’ll never ask for a ride, but I won’t turn down the offer of one.

The winter shapes me. I figure out how to get around. I slip and fall on the ice a lot. I slowly piece together a wardrobe that keeps me warm. I learn how not to fall as much. I end up losing my super nice gloves and get by with a combination of glove liners, work gloves, and a pair of the cooler gloves that grocery store workers wear. This is not nearly as effective. We had a few days where the temperature is below negative 10, with a wind chill of negative 40 or below. There’s a few days in which Montana is the coldest place on the planet. I don’t leave the house on these days. My friends are very generous and give me rides often throughout the winter. Over time, these offers lessen in frequency, which I’m okay with.

I don’t have long socks, or good shoes, so my feet and ankles are always cold. I learn that your extremities get cold, warm up a bit, get cold again, warm up once more, and then get cold again for good. (I recently found out there is a scientific name for this process, so I’m not crazy.) My hands get really cold. I get used to the cold. I begin to like being told I’m crazy. I learn that it really frickin hurts to warm them back up once they’ve reached the permanently cold phase. I learned that it helps just a bit if you run cold water over your hands, since it slows down the process of them heating up.

One day in February, it’s about -10 degrees outside, and I ride to Off the Leaf to meet some friends. My hands reach permacold phase about 10 minutes before I get there. This is bad. I know I’m risking frostbite, and worse, my hands will be in extreme pain for about 10 minutes once I get there. When I do get there, I strip off my outer layers as fast as I can, (which takes a minute since I usually rock about 4 or 5 layers on these days.) I then run to the water cooler, fill up a glass, and alternate submerging each of my hands. My friends are sitting there the entire time watching me, wondering what the hell I’m doing. I try to explain why I look like a crazy person while trying not to cry because my hands hurt so freaking much.

In the midst of the winter, something happens. The suffering, the daily ass-kicking, begins to change me. Proving to mother nature, and mostly to myself, that I can fight through the suffering, and do it repeatedly, on a daily basis, teaches me to lean in to the suffering. I get really excited about life and start pursuing some other crazy ideas of mine.

One day in late-February, when we’ve had a warm stretch, I get invited to hang out at my friend Stephanie’s parents’ house, which is up in Rhebergh Ranch, which is on top of the rims. The rims had always scared me a bit, and I had yet to come up with a good way of getting up them. I had been trying to avoid riding up them. To get up to that house though, I would have to. After my shift at Faith Chapel that night, I rode up Shiloh, over to Zimmerman, and up to the road-closed gate(which wasn’t closed). I take a quick break to contemplate the enormity of the task before me. I am going to attempt to ride up a really-long hill, climb 400+ feet, at night, on a fixed-gear bicycle.

I decide that I will not stop, regardless of how tired I am, until I reach the top. I get about a minute into the ascent and I’m barely crawling. I’m putting all of my strength into every pedal stroke, and just barely moving. I get a about halfway up and realize that I might actually pull this off. When I do make it to the top, I am ecstatic. I’m on cloud nine. I ride the rest of the way to the house, and upon arrival, promptly tell everybody what I just did. I’m exhausted, starving, and extremely sweaty, but I don’t care. I had just conquered the world. About a month later, I would ride up Airport Hill, for the same reason, to the same place. It was still a major accomplishment for me, but not quite as life-changing as the first one. In the time since, I’ve ridden up both streets a couple more times, and every time still feels magical.

Winter fades away, and it get’s a lot easier to ride my bike everyday. For most of the winter, my average day was about 10 miles, getting up to 20 miles on Saturdays, when I would ride between the far west-end and Off the Leaf three times over the course of the day. In mid-April, I was invited to a party at my friend Hannah’s house. She lives out near Laurel. It would be an 8-mile ride one way, which would be the longest I’d ever gone in one stretch. I go for it, and am pretty exhausted when I get there. At the end of the night, I get offered a ride home, which I take. (People are awesome.)

Over the course of the summer, I ride my bike more and more. My average day begins to be around 15 miles, with a 25-mile day being an easy stretch. I do begin to notice myself losing excitement about life. I think back to what was different about winter, and remember the benefits of intentional suffering. I wish I could say I actually did something to change my situation, but that would be lying.

By the time fall comes around, riding my bike is like walking. It requires basically no effort. I put in a 40-mile day on my now single-speed(the fixed-gear broke) and wake up the next day feeling no different. I marvel at how my body has adapted. When I started riding, I ate a significant amount more than usual. (I already ate a ton, but now it was just ridiculous.) At this point, I’m back to eating what I had before. Not only is riding my bike not really a workout anymore, it’s apparently doesn’t really require that much energy either.

Fall passes into winter, and I begin to suffer again. It’s tough at first, but I begin to lean in and enjoy it again. Riding my bike doesn’t feel nearly as crazy as it did last year.

So, it’s been a year now. I’ve changed a lot. I’ve learned that intentional suffering is good for you. It reminds you that you are a badass, and can conquer anything if you attack it with some creativity and a ton of effort. I’ve learned that you’re body can adjust extremely well to the conditions you submit it to. Seriously, that part’s amazing. I’ve learned that your friends will probably adjust to whatever radical life change you make, and will still love you in a year. I’ve learned that being different from the vast majority of people is awesome, makes you more interesting (or at least memorable for being insane), and that you will get so used to it that you regularly forget that new people don’t know you ride your bike everywhere, and are surprised when they ask what the helmet is for, or why you look like you were hiding from a polar bear.

Giving up my car for my bike is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I have no intention of going back.

By the way, I still haven’t figured out how to take a girl out on a date. Any ideas?

You Are More Important Than the Work

I came across an amazing interview with Frank Chimero on The Great Discontent a few days ago. It was full of amazing snippets, but there is one section near the middle that struck me more than any of the others:

“I decided that I would rather be a happy barista than a sad designer. I had saved a little money and I took the next three months off to draw. Every single day I drew something and put it on the Internet. That’s when I started The States Project and did a lot of other stuff, which turned into an illustration career.

The choice to do the unreasonable—to live off of savings and try to get happy—was a risk. I figured it wasn’t worth finding a job designing for someone else if I was still going to hate it. That time away re-acclimated me to enjoying what I wanted to do for a living. I look back now and that was a big lesson. When everything goes to shit, listen to your heart and try to make yourself right; if you can do that, then everything else will hopefully fall into place.

Not everyone feels the same as me about the ‘happy barista vs. sad designer’ thing, but to be willing to say, I am more important than the work,’  opens up your choices. You can drop the mic and walk away to take care of yourself. You are more than your job. You can do other things and still be you. That isn’t insightful to normal people, but for me it was, because design is all I’ve ever done. And maybe it will be for other design folks, since we assign so much identity to the job. That whole “design is a way of life” thing makes me uncomfortable.”

Frank Chimero, taken from The Great Discontent. Emphasis mine.

“I am more important than the work.” That idea is huge. And I struggle with that a bit. I have all these expectations for myself, mostly that I have to become a “success”, and do it soon. But really, I am so much more than that.

I can do other things. I can pursue my other interests. I don’t have to make a ton of money from my endeavors, or any money at all. I don’t have to be self-employed. I don’t have to focus everything on building websites. I don’t have to have a clear path in front of me all the time. I have freedom to explore. I have freedom to experiment. I have freedom to take my time.

The bottom line is that that thing you’re pursuing, living, breathing, dying to make, it’s not all that you are. If you are super into it and want to give it everything, then that’s awesome. Please, absolutely go for it. I can’t wait to see what you make.

But if you aren’t sure what you’re thing is yet, don’t rush to figure it out. Yes, show up and put the time in. But don’t commit your entire being to one single pursuit. You are more than that. Life is more than that. Live now. Enjoy where you’re at and what you’re doing.

My “day job” at the moment is making sandwiches at the Pickle Barrel, and honestly, I don’t love it. I don’t hate it either. It has nothing to do with the things that I really care about, but it pays the bills, I’ve got some great coworkers, and some great bosses. Some days are shitty, but most aren’t, so I’m content there for now. And because I’ve got no pressure on myself to make a bunch of money doing other things, most of the time I feel free, at peace, and a whole lot more creative.

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in five years, but I’m slowly figuring it out. I’m not rushing that, because I am more than the work I do. And because I want to make sure it’s something I love, not something I blindly jumped into. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do as well. I’m not amazing at design by any means. There is still major blind spots in my programming abilities. And I still have a hell of a lot to learn about business.

And that’s okay. I can put energy into all of that, every day, because I’m not rushing. There’s no pressure.

So guys, I challenge you. Slow down, just a bit. Take some time to evaluate what you’re doing and how that relates to who you are. Take some time to keep learning. Take some time to explore your other interests.

Most of all, don’t worry about making money. Not yet. Focus on creating things purely because you love to. If you can make some money without feeling like your selling your soul, go for it. Cover your costs. Do what is necessary to keep going. But please, don’t make that the reason you’re making things.

Do work that matters to you, that you find interesting, and keep any pressure as far away as possible. The money will come eventually. But that doesn’t matter to you right now. Because you are more than that.