"What happens to all the people in China when they die?" I asked my Mother.
"Well, if they believe in Jesus they go to heaven."
"What if they don't believe in Jesus?"
"Then they go to hell, Alex.”
"But what if they've lived great lives and are great people who are kind and loving?" I redirected in hopes of receiving the answer I wanted to hear despite, my intuition's insistence that I already knew what she would say.
"It doesn't matter Alex, if they don't believe and they haven't accepted Jesus into their hearts, then they go to hell." She said in a way that immediately shut down any further conversation or further explanation on the topic.
"That's not fair."
I was 8 or 9 years old at the time. It's one of the oldest conversations that I can remember having. I've always asked a lot of questions about rules and authority. I've always been confused about certain things. I've always wanted answers. It wasn't really a welcomed behavior in certain ways in my family, and a lot of my questions received a, "because I said so", or "because that's the way it is", type of reply.
I never liked those kinds of answers. They have always felt like a cop-out to me, an attempt to hide the truth and shut down any idea that was different from my family's norm.
I was plagued by an incessant gut feeling that what I was being told about Jesus and my mother's version of faith was somehow a convenient way to control me from exploring alternative ideas and explanations. Fear has a way of paralyzing you into doing what you're told.
I had asked the questions about China because my childhood friend's mother was Buddhist, and their faith was different than my Evangelical Christian family. I wanted to know what happened to all of the people who didn't believe or have faith in the same things as my family did. This wasn't the only reason I wanted answer though. I wanted to know because deep in the recesses of my being loomed my own unspoken lack of faith in Jesus.
My grandparents were missionaries on one side and my maternal grandfather was a traveling evangelical preacher. Faith was supposed to run in my blood. Maybe all of their believing and proselytizing would exempt me from the no Jesus, no heaven rules by proxy. Somehow I knew that kind of hope wouldn't work out in my favor. I was desperately curious to find a way into the eternal village though. Was there some sort of backstage pass for access to the heaven loophole?
I wanted to know if you could still end up in heaven, free from burning for all of eternity, alone, without your family, if you didn't believe in Jesus' status as the savior of man? Did no Jesus in your heart really have to end with a do not pass go, do not collect $200, no second chances, no redos, no appeals, go directly to hell? Was it possible to achieve salvation if you never committed any violations in regards to the list of sins contained within the Ten Commandments? Could one live "perfectly" enough without having to let Jesus in your heart and still get through the gates of heaven?
By age eight or nine, I had become very concerned about my own soul and what seemed like an inescapable fate that ended with my soul being swallowed by the gallows of hell, sweating in the heat, listening to the suffering screams of the sinners and the wretched.
So, I would sit in the church's pews each Sunday with my family and all of the members of the congregation in one of Canada's mega churches. I would watch as they stood to sing the hymns with their hands raised over their heads, palms turned to the sky, eyes closed, reaching out for Jesus' love. They would walk to the alter to be saved and to let Jesus into their heart. They would stand and speak in tongues, moved by the Holy Spirit.
Not me though. Not once. I never raised my hands, I never closed my eyes, never went to the alter, never spoke in tongues. Some times I would even lip sync the hymns and keep my eyes open during the prayers. It would have been a lie to fake it, a lie in my heart, and I knew it.
But it was so difficult to make that choice. So many others were raising their hands and ensuring their seat on the bus to heaven. I was dammed if I did and dammed if I didn't and the bind that put me in made me very anxious.
My anxiety grew steadily in me. It had started at a very young age and by the time I got up the nerve to ask about China I had developed some very serious issues that only got worse after I received that answer. I didn't see the link back then, but in retrospect, as I write this, it's incredibly clear.
By the time I was twelve I had a full blown anxiety disorder that included obsessive compulsive issues, repetitive rituals, the inability to sleep most nights, and a general shakiness about the world.
My fears revolved around accidental death. I was terrified I'd die. My fears about dying consumed a lot of my mind especially at night where I would lay awake pleading with whoever was out there listening to please not let me die in my sleep. How did I deal with my anxieties? After my parents were asleep, I would check the doors to make sure no one could break in and kill my family in our sleep. I would check and double check the stove to make sure the house didn't burn down and kill us all. The list of things I would check in an attempt to secure my safety grew with each passing sleepless night. I would sneak downstairs, not once, but over and over again, to repetitively check and recheck, the doors, the stove, the locks, the windows.... In my hours of fear and need I knew that I couldn't pray to Jesus, he wouldn't help me, so I just begged the universe to make sure I stayed alive.
Eventually I couldn't take it anymore. The nightly stress and struggle were so overwhelming, that I confessed my fears to my parents one night around the age of 12. At that time, I didn't realize my all consuming fear was coming from the whole Jesus and hell thing, and even if I had, I couldn't have told them, that would have made it so much worse, so I just said I was afraid. Really afraid.
Within days they took me to a child psychiatrist, who medicated me with a drug that was actually fabulous, no side effects at all, and within weeks I was fear free. By 14, I was off the drug and still fear free, I thought I would be fine for the rest of my life.
I was wrong.
In my 20's the fear came back during a very stressful period in my life. My parents were getting divorced. It was an ugly and devastatingly messy period. I spent all of my energy helping my Father survive it. My Mother wasn't pleased I was helping him. She projected her anger and fear onto me, causing me to question what kind of person I was almost daily. I worried I was the awful person she would tell me I was. Somewhere in my subconscious, the lack of faith I had in Jesus and my refusal to accept my parent’s Christian values began to reignite and swirl.
I was fresh out of college and working my first full time job as a graphic designer in a new city. This time, I wasn't going to die in my sleep, instead, fear manifested as an imaginary illness that I "believed" I had contracted, but had not yet been detected and couldn't be found by any doctor. Mine was a mystery illness, looming in the future, that one day I would discover, but it would be too late to save myself and I would be doomed.
I spent hours on the internet researching possible symptoms of everything and anything out there to make sure that I wasn't missing any warning signs. I'd go to the doctor every few days with some new something I had found that I thought was a sign death was creeping near. I would call my Father every day to tell him I was scared. He would calm my fears, as best he could. This pattern went on for weeks. One day, during another of my frantic calls to my Father, he said firmly, I had to go get some help.
Medication was prescribed again, but this time the old medication I'd been on wasn't available. I was put on an anti-anxiety drug that I hated, the side effects were horrible. So I tried another and then another. With each new medication, the side effects morphed and altered and the fears persisted. Eventually, I found the “right one” and was able to calm myself back to some sense of equilibrium. And yet, I worried the fear would return.
Many years after my parents divorced, still suffering from my lifetime of fear and dread about damnation and death, I decided to finally confess to my Father and my step-mother about my lack of belief in Jesus as my savior. One Christmas, I told them I believed in something else. My “religion”, if you could even call it that, wasn’t my Father’s. My belief system didn’t even have a particular name at the time. It would soon become Buddhism, but during that difficult conversation I was in the infancy of my dedication. Once I finished confessing my renunciation of my youthful dogma, no one seemed terribly shocked at what I was saying. When I prodded to find out where they believed my soul would end up, I hoped my Father would react differently than my Mother had so many times in the past, but he answered; "Sorry honey." My Dad said, "My faith says you'll go to hell."
One day, about three years ago, it dawned on me like a ton of bricks, I hadn't had anxiety or obsessive compulsive symptoms in years. I wondered why this was? What had changed? I hadn't been on anti-anxiety medication for years. I didn't really have an answer. Part of me thought it might be because I'd been religiously practicing meditation and asana. I soon came to realize this wasn't the real reason. It wasn't the meditation and yoga-asana that helped me free myself from my fear of death. It was study. It was the study of yoga's philosophy and Buddhism that helped me unshackle myself. It was finding a way to see the world and to connect with a spirituality that freed me. It was finding something that didn't speak of hell, damnation and separation, but instead spoke of the moment, acceptance of the nature of the dualistic universe, and a connection to self that helped me finally become free and live.
Last fall, I finally received what I had been hoping to hear, since I was a small child. While having dinner in London over the Christmas holidays, my Father and I began to speak openly of Buddhism. He explained that he thought that Buddhists worshiped the Buddha as a deity and had their own version of heaven and hell. I laughed a little when he told me that, I realized how confused both he and my Mother had been. They worried there was another deity that could be worshiped and followed and could lead you to heaven. Part of my Father’s fear was that in his choosing Jesus, instead of the Buddha, there was a chance that they may be holding the wrong ticket to the show. When he met his maker and stood before the pearly gates, there was a chance he may have been holding the wrong ticket to the show. Fear made him say everyone who held different beliefs, including me, would end up in hell. Fear and ignorance allowed my parents to look their child in the eyes and say, as my mother had so many years ago, their own daughter and her dear friend would “go to hell” for holding faith in another form.
Over our magical dinner, I explained to my Father that the Buddha was not a deity, but instead he was just a man that offered a way for people to live with more ease in the here and now. As I spoke of my faith, my Father would interject, "I like that, Alex. I just allow things to be as they are.” He saw links even in the small moments of his life, “Some of that's the kind of stuff I do in traffic here in London.” He connected my words to “how I accept my best friend who is gay,” For the first time, we didn't have to talk of hell or Jesus. Instead of fear and separation between us, there was acceptance and connection. At one point, my Father stared out into the sky and just repeated softly, “I just didn't know." After awhile, a soft quiet settled between us. I smiled. So did he. What he didn't see was how my heart healed that day. Maybe my Father did.
Questions for my Mother
Cover Photography by Mark Peterson