Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Finding Grace in the None on my Son's Dog Tags

On Memorial Day weekend, my family made a trip through the hot and sticky South all the way down to Fort Benning, Georgia. It was only the end of May, but the weather was already hot and humid and gross in that stifling way that only the deep South can be. We made the trip for my oldest son's basic training "Family Day". At the time, we hadn't seen him for almost nine long weeks, our only contact with him crammed into short phone calls sliced and divided between five eager family members.

It was the first time we had seen him in uniform, the first time we had a glimpse of the soldier (and the man) he was becoming. There were tears and hugs. He showed off his budding new biceps and regaled us with drill sergeant stories. He told us about in-processing and the line-ups for mass inoculations... and he showed off his new dog tags.

Like with everything he had to tell us about his experiences since we tearfully watched him board the bus to Fort Benning, he talked on rapidly and excitedly, like he had to cram the whole of everything he wanted to tell us into a ten minute phone call. He pointed out his blood type (It was indeed AB positive just like we had speculated before he left) and explained how one of the tags could be snapped off while the other remained with his body if battle conditions prevented it from being immediately recovered.

While I shoved that little piece of information away for later mulling (or mental blocking, which seems way easier) I asked him what the word "NONE" was for, written in big capital letters.

"Oh, that's my religion," he replied rather nonchalantly.

It seems so odd that four little letters on two dog tags could cause a quiet feeling of panic, but they did. Not that I felt like I had necessarily failed my son spiritually in some way, it just seemed such a small way to summarize something so enormous and important. While I know that space is limited and there are only a few constrictive categories for soldiers to choose from, it seemed dismissive for the US Army to consider my child to be without a guide for the bigger, pressing, important questions of human existence. That word, with only four letters (three really... the N is repeated so it really only counts as one), is what would sum up my son's spirituality, the identifier that would remain with his irretrievable body should it turn cold, the potential marker of his final resting place. (Mental Note: I need to work on better mental blocking.)

Yeah. I was panicky. The image of that one word on those metal dog tags is one of the most persistent images I remember from that "Family Day" weekend.

I returned home from that weekend to find a pleasant surprise in my inbox, a request to review a book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment. 

I had made the decision to participate after reading the very first paragraph of the synopsis:
Meet “the Nones”—In this thought-provoking exploration of secular America, celebrated journalist Katherine Ozment takes readers on a quest to understand the trends and ramifications of a nation in flight from organized religion.

Can you say serendipity? There I was struggling with the "None" on my son's dog tags, when I get an offer to review a book about exactly what that word actually means. It is happy coincidences of finding exactly what I need exactly when I need it that keep me believing in something bigger than myself... perhaps something benevolent... perhaps just something with a great sense of timing and an odd sense of humor.

I didn't need to meet "the Nones". I am one, and apparently so are my children. My son's dog tags are cold hard proof.

I spent the next two weeks reading Ozment's book, even lugging it to the beach (It is, admittedly, a bit heavy for a beach read... in content, not in actual weight.)

Part memoir, part critical exploration, this book isn't just for atheists. It's for anyone whose spirituality doesn't neatly fit into a preformed religious box. Not only does Ozment examine the reasons why large numbers of people are leaving religion, but also seeks to find solutions to the gaps that a lack of organized religion can leave in people's lives. She looks for alternative ways to fill an individual's need for community, values, volunteer opportunities, support in times of need, meaningful ritual, and life purpose. 

She takes us along on her own journey as she treads the more remote and unexplored areas of secular life, searching for her own way to find meaning and belonging outside of religion. She leads us through her explorations and meetings with experts in the fields of psychology, biology, sociology, and history. She talks with atheists, Buddhists, secular humanists, agnostics, scientists, and scholars in a very thorough exploration of the ways the nonreligious find purpose and fulfillment in a life without organized religion.

While I spent large portions of the book feeling like Ozment was attempting to convince me that I needed religion, that nothing could adequately replace the connection, purpose, and fulfillment that religion often has to offer, after reading the entire book, I realize it was just the author's personal frustration with her own quest showing through her outwardly journalistic demeanor.

While I personally feel like my family has already found ways to fill the gaps in purpose, morality, ritual, and community, those who are still struggling will find Ozment's list of resources invaluable. The resource section at the end of Grace Without God is full of books to read, questions to consider, and websites to browse.

Grace Without God is a great read for those attempting to navigate the world without the prop of organized religion. It is definitely worth a read (although you might want to consider something fluffier to tote along to the beach. Or if deep and serious is your beach style, have at it. I'm not one to judge.)

My favorite sentiment comes from the author's epilogue, which is actually a touching open letter to her three children.
"Christians believe that it is God who grants us grace, but I believe we create it for ourselves, through persistence, awareness, and clear-eyed reflection. Grace comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God."
Thank you, Katherine Ozment for helping me understand that the "None" on my son's dog tags doesn't signify a lack of morality, meaning, or grace. It is indeed possible to have those things with or without religion. 

And thank you, TLC Book Tours for your incredible sense of timing.


Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

Serendipity indeed! I'm pleased to see that this book came along at exactly the perfect time for you. Thank you for your thoughtful review for the tour.

Audra said...

Thank you for sharing this -- I found your experience so moving (as an Air Force brat esp!). So glad this book showed the grace in the "none" on your son's dogtags, for there is grace there.