Right now, I am in the process of disaffiliating from this religion that I invented in high school called Peaceful Abstractionism. It was around the time when everyone was getting acclimated to Facebook, the Facebook culture of defining yourself in every imaginable category so rashly; name, hometown, languages spoken, relationship status, political stance, life philosophy. Religion. How were we qualified to name these personal definitives at age 14?
There was heated debate among my friends on whether one should A) put up their parent-dictated religion (and level of, for the Jews who didn’t know if Reform was inherently more badass than Conservative or Modern Orthodox or Kabbalist), B) say they were atheists when they were afraid to explain their atheism to their parents, C) say they were agnostic but not actually know why, D) list a snarky made-up one like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster/Temple of Twinkies/Bokononism or E) just leave it blank.
I tried explaining this conundrum to my drama teacher, Sal, a late-50-something anglophile, well-versed in Facebook and obsessed with looking up guitars that Paul McCartney had signed on Ebay instead of teaching us about Stanislavsky.“Well, Amanda, why don’t you think about your own personal brand of religion and name it something brand new? That’ll get people talking on Facebook, right-o!”
I was puzzled, because no one had ever prompted me to think of my own personal brand of religion. Interesting to say “brand” too, even though in the end, all religions are are specific, popularized brands of belief systems. All I knew for certain was that I had no issue with questions of the vastness of the universe — how we got here and how whales used to have feet and birds are really dinosaurs and how people sometimes wake from decade-long comas. I was at peace with all things abstract.
The Peaceful Abstractionists’ colors were lavender and apricot. No symbols for people to brandish in the form of jewelry or statues or little laminated cards; just colors. Colors to put people at ease.
I made peace with the abstract a long time ago, when my dad gave me a children’s encyclopedia at the age of six or seven. I read it cover to cover over the span of one summer, every morning over cereal before I got on the bus to go to camp. I knew that the encyclopedia could only cover so much, and that if I wanted a real encyclopedia that had all the world’s information, it would be a magic encyclopedia because A) there is too much stuff out there for the magic encyclopedia to be knowledgable about everything, and it would have to be infinity pages long and B) we don’t know most of this stuff yet because there is only so much that human beings can find out in their lifetimes. We couldn’t possibly put stuff we don’t know yet into a book. The latter hit me when I read that there are something like 400 million species of insects that remain unclassified in just the tropical jungles of South America. Just the jungles. Of one continent out of seven.
Peacefully accepting the abstract also had a hand in the way I approached college. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, and still do not, but I knew that if I just applied to places where I could do multiple things, I’d eventually flourish. I made peace with the unknowable future, which translated into a liberal arts education that I now am cursing so hard. I am trying to do this, the making peace with the future-future, the one that comes after college, but David Foster Wallace's “Day-to-Day” is looming uncomfortably close over my head. For the first time, I am questioning the way I approach things.
There is a fine line between denial and my Peaceful Abstractionism. But denial involves ignorance, and Peaceful Abstractionism involves smart thinking and acceptance of whatever is to come, the ability to change whatever needs changing and the assumption that everything is going to be okay.
That stuff I just said above?
That is denial in disguise.
The ninth grade me made her Facebook religion “Peaceful Abstractionism” for one week, and then deleted it completely, because she thought it was stupid and she’d have to explain it to people and be preachy and horrible. But Peaceful Abstractionism is something I’ve been wanting to share for a while, self-invented Facebook Religion Replacer that it is, because it lends itself to a greater lesson: there is beauty in asserting that we don’t know most of the stuff in the world and using in that knowledge to empower ourselves. But Peaceful Abstractionism also promotes a sense of that aforementioned denial: it will all turn out okay.
If you feel your heart suddenly wobble in line at Starbucks and you think you’re going to die before even getting a sip of your midday coffee, it will be okay. If you’re in danger of failing Linguistics 260, it will be okay. If you find yourself kicked out of your parents’ house and unemployed or, worse, employed but not making nearly enough money to live off of, it will be okay. Boyfriend isn’t cutting it anymore after years of commitment? It will be okay. Loved ones have cancer? Okay. Wars erupt? Famine all over? Apocalypse? Okay. Okay. Okay. Make peace with it all.
It’s not true. Most things won’t be okay. But people need to hear this lie to remain sane and keep breathing. So my made-up religion is just like the others in that sense: It lies.
Something that brings peace to the mind thrashing with anxiety: the calming distraction of creativity. Painting and knitting and singing and beading and reading and writing and reading and drawing and embroidering and painting some more. Stuff that requires movement of the hands and light of a lamp in the middle of the night. Making peace with the abstract, the future, it will do nothing to stop the thrashing. It will just discount the thrashing. And creating things will stop the thrashing for short periods of time, but it’s like how sharks die if they stop moving: creating can’t be a 24/7 occurrence. You can’t wield a paintbrush while trying to fall asleep in the static-y darkness of your room, the usual flood of preoccupying ideas preventing your eyes from shutting, the flood for hours on end.
I love when girls, usually of the white, gen-Y variety, get inner wrist tattoos that say Breathe. There is a whole army’s worth of them out there. I want to know what good it is to remind yourself to breathe. I try reminding myself to breathe almost every day, but every time I start, it just gets me scared that I’ll forget to breathe as soon as I stop reminding myself. Then, I start silently thanking that little blob in my lower brain, the medulla oblongata, for being a pro at controlling my involuntary body actions like breathing. But I also know that I can trump my own medulla oblongata's power when I really set my mind to it. High stress situation like coming home for the holidays? Medulla trumped. For increments of five minutes at a time, breathing seems like the worst possible chore in the world. But I reject possible shitty solutions like wrist tattoos, free campus psychologists, pricey better ones, self-help books and righteous mental health blogger advice and burdening friends.
The only real solution I’ve found to all this is a solely-independent activity: basic meditation, quieting mind and body without relying on a devout belief system or a constant motion of hands fiddling with pens, keyboards, wooden needles. Meditation has the same comforting repetition as religion and fine motor activities, but is so much simpler: breath in on one word, breath out on one word. Or a number, breathe in on one number, count for a bit as you hold the breath, breathe out on another number. I prefer words because numbers remind me of math and math stresses me out, and that defeats the point entirely.
To make my attempts at meditation completely areligious, I made up a nonsensical word to breathe on: nan-ya. In on “nan-”, out on “-ya”. It sounds pretty legit and it keeps the mental thrashing to a minimum. I imagine watercolor blooms of apricot and lavender, spreading across a white vast pad of paper, and nothing else. Sigh of relief. Catching of breath.
I like making things but I don’t want to have to make things. Of course, I can’t be chanting nan-ya under my breath all day and night either, so it’s a balance of fiddling with my hands and my right brain and pretending to meditate myself into something that resembles my version of nothingness. The opposite of transcendence. This balance is the real and most recent meaning of peace that I know of.