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Wishing for religion

The earth breathed beneath me, inhaling rain and releasing steam. These exhalations grasped at my legs as I moved by the graveyard, but I continued through the moisture, my eyes trained on the grid of tombstones. Names blurred together through the veil of the humidity, and dates became smudges of lives wiped clean by an inexorable truth. Whenever I tried to focus my gaze, the meaning of the letters danced a little farther away.

In that moment, I was not seized by the same type of fear that normally grips me with the arrival of another full week of due dates or expectations. I did not feel that rooted terror at the prospect of losing a friendship following a fight or a misplaced prox or a lack of time to sleep. All those emotions suddenly seemed so banal in the face of death — the one truly universal experience.

I block out the prospect of others’ and my mortality on a daily basis, occupying myself with relative trivialities to avoid descending into insanity. That Saturday afternoon spent beneath the weeping sky, however, I allowed myself to consider the questions that form the foundations of almost every major religion. I came to no conclusion, save one.

I wish I were religious.

Not for some of the reasons that immediately come to mind, however. I don’t want to adhere to the explanations of the afterlife that run throughout the Bible or the Quran or the Vedas or any other holy text, not that I begrudge anyone who does.

What I crave is that sense of identity, that organized community to discuss what comes after life, to explore whether or not I believe in a god or many gods, to engage in unifying traditions that transcend my sense of self. Of course, there are realms in which to discuss faith (or lack thereof), and I have in many cases explored my views with friends and family but never in a consistent manner. I see individuals here and at home who identify as Christian or Jewish or Muslim who don’t believe in some of the tenets that are used to define these and other religions, and that is essentially what I yearn for. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

At this stage in my life, though, I feel so distanced from these groups by virtue of growing up in a household that never emphasized, and, in fact, eschewed, the idea of religion, that I don’t feel as though I can fully incorporate it into my identity. I can, and do, choose to learn the core principles of different faiths to gain insight into cultures and morality and ways of human thought. But I don’t feel as though I can belong within one.

That Saturday afternoon, I thought briefly of entering the church just up the hill, of kneeling before the altar and exploring the far corners of my mind to discern what beliefs and fears lurked there. Aside from the undeniable fact that rain had saturated my very being in the 45 minutes I spent outside, I ultimately rejected that impulse as an intrusion upon a world to which I never have belonged and likely never will belong. I should clarify, however, that this sense of permanence does not stem from any behavior of religious communities on campus or in my home state. In fact, the opposite in most cases is true. My conclusion that I will never be one to join an organized religion derives itself from my own inhibitions that make me feel as though my presence would be an intrusion. Irrational though this thought may be, it is ever-present and pervasive.

Perhaps this longing for religion, even in the face of such an “outsider” mentality, is unique to my search for that elusive thing we call our identity. But I doubt it. Even so, I will not excuse it, nor will I suppress it. I will use it as a tool to drive my self-exploration. Maybe someday it will help lead me to my answers for the questions that I faced as I paused to consider life beyond death. Maybe it won’t. But in any case, that desire itself, and its implications as to my core values and priorities, has become a part of my identity as crucial to my sense of self as the names of those individuals I visited that afternoon were to them.

Kelly Hatfield is a freshman from Medford, Mass. She can be reached at kellych@princeton.edu.

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