Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Heavens

My friend Adam is a skeptic. He doesn’t believe in unseen, unprovable phenomina like conspiracy theories, ghosts, or gods. If he’s going to believe in something, he wants empirical proof.

One day when we were talking, I mentioned something about horoscopes. “You don’t actually believe in that, do you?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to answer. If he was asking whether I believe that people’s personalities are shaped by celestial patterns, that all people born on a particular day, or even during the same month, would share a set of identifiable traits based on the position of the planets—then no. If he was asking whether I believe that knowing somebody’s astrological sign affords some worthwhile insight into his or her personality—then, I suppose, yes.

I’ve always been interested in astrology and horoscopes, and it seemed dense of me that I had never thought about whether I actually believed in them. They’ve always just been there, like Democrats and Republicans, black, white, Asian and Latino people, like terriers and schnauzers, and every other useful but probably fictitious categories we classify things and people by.

Horoscopes had always been one of my ways of understanding all sorts of personal relationships, starting with my family. My mother and sister are a Cancer and Pisces, respectively, both signs known for their emotionalism and sensitivity. My father, on the other hand, is a Virgo, a logical, Mr. Spock kind of sign. My own sign, Gemini, represents duality, which seemed to explain my status as the peacemaker between the two factions.

Our professions also reflect these traits. My emotional mother is an artist, while my logical father is a computer engineer. My sensitive sister is a psychologist. And I, the mediator, am an English teacher, which means that my job is largely to help people with different viewpoints and perspectives to communicate with one another.

My first serious boyfriend was a Virgo, born on the same date as my father. After we broke up, I looked up our compatability in a book my roommate owned called Love by the Stars. The book said the following about Gemini-Virgo couples:

You are join
ed by your mutual interest in intellectual pursuits. However, aside from that fundamental similarity, you are not naturally compatible. The Gemini will perceive the Virgo as uptight, rigid, and overly serious, while the Virgo will find the Gemini to be flighty, disorganized, and prone to silly distractions.

I couldn’t believe it; the description seemed to have been written by someone who knew me and my ex-boyfriend personally. It turned out that my next relationship, with yet another logical, serious Virgo, followed this pattern as well.

How could I not believe in astrology, after all of this evidence of its predictive and explanatory powers? And yet how could I believe in something so patently untrue, from a strictly empirical point of view?

Reflecting on these patterns, I realized that they are less a belief than a mythology, a pattern more literary or symbolic than scientific. Certainly not every Virgo in the world behaves like my father or first two boyfriends, and not every Gemini acts like me. Still, these categories have always been a part of my consciousness. They have shaped the way I understand the world for so long that if I decided to excise them as illogical, I would lose a shade of meaning as rich as art or music.

It’s a lot like religion, really, because I use that to explain my life, too, even though I don’t strictly believe in it.

Monday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Proper Jews stayed home from work and attended services, praying and fasting until sunset.

I didn’t do doing anything at all to observe the holiday this year, and I haven’t for many years. I used to observe this holiday every year, you might say religiously. It took on a special significance to my family when I was seventeen, just after my mother’s father died. Yom Kippur was on his birthday that year, and my mother, sister and I fasted and attended services on Stanford campus near our house (my father was never much for synagogue; he went to work). My mother brought printed copies of my grandfather’s eulogy, since my sister and I had not been able to go to the east coast for his funeral. After the service, we sat on the grass and read the eulogy, and then we shared memories of my grandfather. It was a very sweet and sad afternoon, its significance heightened by the dreaminess of hunger.

By the time we were ready to go home, my mother felt too lightheaded to drive, so I drove, being extra attentive to traffic since I was also fairly woozy. When we got home we could not find the copies of the eulogy, which had been in a folder along with some pictures and documents. It turns out I had left them on the roof of the car, back on Stanford campus. I drove back to Stanford, now in a really surreal haze, and found the folder, scarred by a dusty tire-print, in the parking lot. I expected my mother to be angry with me, but she said, “It’s okay. We’re all just really out of it.”

This was a special day for my family, and for a while, Yom Kippur became a meaningful family tradition in a way that other Jewish holidays were not. My mother still observes Yom Kippur fastidiously each year, but I stopped long ago. It seemed that the significance of the day was more about family history and the headiness of hunger than about religion. Even if there is a God, I don’t think It would be interested in micromanaging us to this level. With all the activity and matter in the universe, what kind of Supreme Being would busy Itself worrying about what I eat?

Cartoon--"Compare and Contrast: God Versus Superman" written by Karin Spirn and illustrated by Adam Caldwell.


brain said...

Riffing on your god/superman:

Jesus and Superman are both the only son of a superior power with vast resources from beyond the sky... adopted by mortal parents, raised as one of us.

Both are inherently good, incapable of ill-will. Both the Messiah and Superman were characters created by Jews.

In a more modern version of both God and Superman, their villains/opposing force for both are not evil per se, but rather standards of disbelief and amorality

Karin Spirn said...

He told people to eat his body and drink his blood. That's so cool!

Melinda said...

So Marylin Manson is cool? Man, I am so out of the loop.

Oh, Brain, you and your whimsy.

sondra said...

I was scared to read this post because its title made me think you were going to lay out a bunch of arguments about what makes God no more real than Superman.

And, actually, I was the one making those arguments a couple years ago. I was like your friend Adam--I wanted empirical evidence before I would believe anything.(Yeah--a few years after grad school I turned atheist, or at least agnostic.)

But then last summer I got my evidence. I met God. It's true. I had an unbidden mystical experience, an epiphany. God was nothing like Superman--in fact was nothing like "God" either. The experience was exactly like the ones described in Barbara Bradley Haggerty's new book, which I just started reading and highly recommend.

So even if I still can't exactly define what God is, and I think much religion is rubbish, I'm now open to believing in lots of things I didn't before--maybe even Superman if he visits me personally.

Karin Spirn said...

Superman's not real?

Sondra, I am totally in shock that you had a period of atheism! You have always been my model of what a Christian should be. Like, when people started bagging on Christians, I'd say, "But I have a friend who is a REAL Christian!" Your sense of kindness, non-judgmentalness, and openness have always struck me as what Jesus would want Christianity to be about.

sondra said...

Awww, shucks. Thanks. Even when I didn't believe in God I still called myself Christian because I was still convinced Jesus's teachings were on the right track. (Well, mostly right. I didn't put much stock in the "Father" he supposedly talked a lot about . . . .)