What Are You, Anyway?

“So, what are you, anyway?” That was the question he asked. Catching me off guard, I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Here’s how it all happened.

We were sitting on a living room sofa. It was a Saturday evening party at a friend’s home. The young man, perhaps in his late 20’s, recently finished a Ph.D. in chemistry. His area of expertise is computer-based categorization of, well, I’m not exactly sure – other than it’s related to chemistry. What was clear to me was that he valued identifying the correct category for things.

He said that was surprised that in the midst of a group of scientists, I was there: a professor of psychology whose area of interest was the integration of spirituality and psychology. “What do you think about all these scientists who are atheists? What does spirituality have to do with them?”

I attempted to explain that spirituality is more like an energy or sense of passion that is life-giving. Spirituality may be organized around a religious belief system but it’s much more fundamental to human experience than that. Instead, spirituality is part of our sense of self and is the foundation for how we live. Speaking to a scientist, I went a bit further to provide evidence from research. I explained particular studies about spiritual practice and neurology. I spoke of several studies that showed how the brain changed over time as a result of spiritual practices like meditation as well as positive physical and mental health outcomes.

With a curious look on his face, it was then that he asked, “So, what are you, anyway?” I paused. I realized he needed a category for me. I responded, “If you’re looking for a label, I am Christian, but there’s more to what I’m saying than that.” His response was almost immediate. “Oh, okay. I’m going to get another drink.” At that, he got up and walked away.

My line of conversation with this young man probably was a bit out of place given our setting. I jumped into the deep water of a substantial topic while others were sticking to lite topics: sports, TV shows, and favorite foods. In our brief exchange, I introduced perspectives and ways of thinking that were outside of his experience. His response to it all was a simple question: “What are you?” He needed a find a category through which he could understand the conversation.

As I’ve thought about this conversation, it has occurred to me how often we categorize people’s beliefs and assume there’s nothing more to them than the category we’ve assigned to them. But those categories are nothing more than external parameters that reflect very little of an individual’s inner experience. The time I’ve spent talking with others about experiences of spiritual practices has taught me that such experiences are essentially the same for Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and people of all faiths as well as those of no particular faith. Instead of focusing on how to categorize a person’s beliefs (i.e., Buddhist, New Age, or Hindu) by asking a question like, “What are you?” isn’t it more important to consider the individual’s inner experience? Or, on another dimension, is the label I call myself (Christian) really an accurate categorization of what I am? To that end, perhaps more relevant questions for us to ask ourselves are questions like: “Who is God in me?” or “What does Spirit do in me?” or “Who is it that I am becoming as a result of my inner life?”

It’s not unusual to focus on the externals of religion and spirituality. We may want to know what others believe will happen after death. Is there an afterlife? A heaven or hell? Or reincarnation? Or just the end of life? From those beliefs, we put people in categories as similar to ourselves or as different from us. A focus on categorization often leads to “us” and “them” thinking that separates people from one another. The irony is that the inner experience of spirituality draws us to understand something of the deep connection we share with others and with all of life.

Saturday night’s party wasn’t the right time to explore this. But as I’ve reflected about the question, “What are you, anyway?” I know that I did not provide an accurate answer. I am a human being who understands life as rooted in an experience of the Sacred. I have come to understand that the Sacred is infused in every aspect of life. I am someone who hopes to continue to grow in that awareness. What am I? I am another person on life’s journey.

© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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