Susan Cole talks about leaving behind her Christian roots and the norms of her community to discover her own brand of spirituality.
For many years, I silently envied those who happily went with their families to church. For me the pew was a place where my body was, but my heart and mind were restless. Growing up in rural upstate New York with a mortician for a father, we were expected to go to church every Sunday. I enjoyed the singing and the sense of community, but often struggled to connect the lessons of the pastor to my daily life. When I had children of my own, I felt anxious about sending my boys to Sunday school. What is wrong with me? I wondered. I had been a Christian my whole life. And now we have sons to raise, and church needs to be part of that equation.
But the truth is, I’ve always secretly felt conflicted by the lessons I was taught in church. From the time I was a little girl, I could not escape the feeling that God must surely love all people equally. The notion of Heaven confused me about the point of life on earth; were we all just biding our time, waiting to be assessed for our worthiness on Judgment Day? Some nights I couldn’t fall asleep, thinking with absolute certainty that I was going to Hell given the all the mistakes I’d made.
I became a Sunday school teacher as a teenager, hoping I’d find a stronger connection if I was teaching myself. I didn’t, but finally, I let go of trying to figure it out. I decided that it was good enough to just be a card-carrying member of the “going to Heaven club” that my well-intentioned parents had enrolled me in.
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But as my boys grew, my discomfort became so strong I could no longer ignore it. I realized with a certain amount of shame that I was going through the motions to keep up the appearance of a “good family.” We tried a handful of different churches before we eventually decided to stop going altogether. My husband, who was raised agnostic, had been happy to go to church for the sake our kids, but was equally supportive when I wanted to stop going. But the decision left me feeling scared—and free—as I had no idea where it was taking us.
I researched other religions, holding out a small hope that maybe the “perfect” one was out there. My husband and I consciously took ownership over identifying and cultivating core family values with a strong focus on love, kindness, and compassion. Still, I was a little uneasy when friends asked me, “So what church are you going to?” Then the question slowly changed to, “So, what are you?” In our community, where most families are Mormon or Christian, my sons were subjected to some playground sneers. I felt like I had “outed” our whole family. We tried to turn those moments into worthy dinnertime discussions.
Somewhere along the way I started going to the local Bikram Yoga studio. Standing on my mat and towel looking into my own two eyes day after day, I realized the voice I was straining to hear all those years in the church pew was becoming clearer. With great humility, I came to realize all the imperfections in me are an undeniable part of who I am. I began to see my weaknesses and mistakes as opportunities to continually to grow and learn, not flaws to keep hidden from view. And by accepting my own imperfect self head-on, I found it was becoming increasingly easier to hold compassion and love in my heart for others. Importantly, I was finally able to come to terms with the fractured pieces of my spiritual journey.
With great joy (and intermittent annoyance), I realized I didn’t need to sit before a pulpit for spiritual guidance; teachers were around me every day. The old man shuffling down the aisle at the grocery store. The angry woman standing next to me at the concert. My dear friend I used to go to church with and her beautiful wide-eyed, old-soul Chinese daughter. My new friend from yoga class. I continually challenge myself to acknowledge that everyone has something to teach me, and sometimes the most annoying people are the very best teachers of all. I just need to practice my values in the moment, which enables me to remain open to the lesson. Hopefully through these encounters I am honing my skills as a teacher in the world as well.
I have rekindled my love of the teachings of Jesus. I have also found wisdom in the words of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama, the songs of Michael Franti and the way my dogs greet me when I come home. More than anything, I have developed an intensely personal relationship with my God. It is from this space that I have found deep connections not just for people who are like me, but with all of humanity.
I believe we all possess the seeds of who our souls are truly destined to become. Like all species, we humans need the right conditions not just to survive but flourish.
I believe that if we listen carefully and remain open, our spirits will help us find our own right conditions. For some people that place may be church. For others, it may be in nature. For me, it just happened to be on my yoga mat. I’m glad I was brave enough to listen to the restless call within me, even though I didn’t know where it was taking me. For through it, I have been able to fully claim my own, unique spiritual journey. I have never felt more alive or at peace, and the universe has become a magical, beautiful place.