EXHIBITION INFORMATION AND ARTIST STATEMENT
Painting was my first love. At sixteen I would borrow my father’s pickup, drive to secluded locations and sit on the tailgate as I painted waterfalls and Dutch elm trees. Art and I had a simple relationship then; I responded to natural beauty with no expectations beyond mere gratification offered by the act of painting.
Now, as I try to come to grips with my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, I return to the simplicity of that relationship to help me from falling into the darkness of depression that can slowly but steadily squeeze the joy from life. Art is healing; it reminds me there is still beauty in the world.
Painting the landscape restores my ability to see it.
Many of the textile pieces in this exhibition were created while passing time with my mother. Her mother taught me to knit and crochet and this kind of work sometimes
provides a point of contact for shared memory.
"What are you doing?"
"Mama loved to crochet."
"Yes she did, I remember."
A donation of forty percent from the sale of all works during the exhibition will be made to the Alzheimer's Society of Nova Scotia.
(tax receipts available upon request)
As I continue to prepare for PASSING TIME, my art exhibition in October 2016, I spend much time observing and thinking about the experience of Alzheimer's disease, for those in inflicted directly - and the collateral damage to those of us forced to watch one they love disappear...
NOT to say
to people who have
WHAT DID YOU HAVE FOR LUNCH / DID YOU HAVE A NICE LUNCH?
While seemingly benign, such a question betrays a lack of sensitivity about the phenomenology of Alzheimer’s for those who have it, especially as the disease progresses. While ‘lunch’ seems like a harmless topic, such questions point out memory failure in a most acute way. Unless you are willing to take the topic further, as in, for example, “Did you like the egg salad sandwiches we had for lunch together?” don’t’ bring it up. While the former serves only to make the patient feel badly about herself, the second shows a willingness to engage her in the present.
NO /THAT’S NOT RIGHT/ YOU’RE MISTAKEN/ DON’T YOU REMEMBER?
Alzheimer’s patients create memories out of failing synapses. While they may sound convinced about the truth of what they are saying, they, as the disease progresses, become increasingly unable to retain reliable memories. Sometimes they weave together pieces from different stories (true and/or untrue) and often simply make up thoughts to fill in the blanks. Trying to convince an Alzheimer’s patient that he or she is misremembering or factually incorrect is not helpful. Let it go and take a walk down imaginary memory-lane with them.
THAT’S NOT A VERY NICE THING TO SAY
(In response to, say, a comment like, "Your child's feet are cold" - during a very hot summer afternoon, for example - "put some socks on him. You're a bad parent!")
Oh, if only I had made up that example... but such harsh judgmental statements issuing from the lips of Alzheimer’s patients are not uncommon. Try to catch yourself, even as you feel your temperature rising. It is not the actual person you knew who speaks in these instances, but the callous disease that has taken over control of their brain, filters, and lips. Rebuking and/or correcting someone who speaks without regard for other people’s feelings is often warranted and encouraged – but this is not one of those times. It will do no good. The lesson will not be learned and anger will not be reduced, only fueled. Best advice? Change the topic of conversation.
WE’RE GOING TO GET YOUR HAIR CUT TOMORROW/ THIS AFTERNOON/ IN FIVE MINUTES.
A statement about the future, regardless of how far in advance (or not) will not prepare the Alzheimer’s patient for an event. Especially if the event is something he or she does not particularly like. Protests may range from a mild ‘I’m not feeling well,’ or ‘I don’t want to go,’ to a full-blown ‘I’m not going,’ or ‘I’ll never forgive you for treating me like this.’ Instead, mention nothing ahead of time. When the actual time for the event is at hand, alert him or her to the fact that it is now taking place. By using this strategy, there will probably still be resistance, arguments, maybe even tears, but it will be for less time, saving you – and the Alzheimer’s patient – the anguish of negative expectation.
WE WERE JUST DISCUSSING THE SESSION YOU HAD WITH YOUR DOCTOR. NO NEED TO WORRY.
Paranoia is one of the hallmarks, or as I like to say, ‘hellmarks,’ of Alzheimer’s disease. You will not convince the patient that you are not plotting about them behind their back – probably even if you include them in the discussion; their trust threshold is low – very low. For the most part, Alzheimer’s patients do not know where they are in time or space. Their world is small and without the ability to think back or ahead there is much to be feared in the unknown. If you must speak about the patient with others do it well out of their sight and earshot. If they do overhear their name and accost you about motives, move quickly to the most plausible white lie, such as, “We were just saying how nice your new haircut looks on you!” And sell it.
Peer Gallery October 15-26. 2016
It has been over three years since I've had an exhibition of my work! Much has happened during that time and this exhibition will give me the opportunity to take stock.
I've called the exhibition 'Passing Time' because I have been spending a good deal of time thinking about my mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease - and my attempt to come to grips with it.
The exhibition will feature two kinds of art. The first, landscape paintings, is intended to encapsulate fleeting moments of beauty that have helped sustain me as I've watched my mother’s slow, but steady, decline. These paintings are moody and hopeful - inspired by ordinary moments, like the changing colours of the night sky over the lake where my parents live. The paintings are a reminder to me of time passing - far too quickly.
The second set of artworks are the direct result of passing time with my mother over the past few years as she naps in her favourite chair. It is a collection of handmade wraps and bags.
My mother’s mother taught me to knit and crochet when I was about thirteen. When I visit mom I often take along skeins of yarn, the kind she enjoyed rolling into balls for her own mother when she was a girl. This brings back pleasant memories we can share together, if only for a few minutes. In addition, I think it's sometimes comforting for her to see me knitting in the chair beside her when she wakes between naps, especially during our long winter afternoons together.
A small preview of works for the exhibition can be viewed by clicking here.
“The alarm didn’t go off! We’re going to miss our flight!” After a few profanities, these were the first words I heard on Saturday morning. After four nights in beautiful Tortola and a night in the more consumer-oriented island of St. Thomas (see above...), we were headed to H’s home in Grand Cayman.
“Stuff everything in a bag! No time! No time! We’ll never make the flight!”
“You go ahead,” I responded as I scanned the room for items we might have missed. Running to the elevator, one shoe strap flapping with every step, I followed H into the dark morning to find the cab we had reserved for an hour earlier!
H disappeared into the rain as I continued to squeeze things into my suitcase. The cabbie soon arrived and, with his soft, calm, laid-back island style, casually put our bags into the back of his van. He seemed to take little notice of our frenetic energy. Whipping past cars we raced toward the airport. I could feel H mentally subtracting the red lights from our countdown time. The cabbie chatted on his phone, his tranquil manner at once calming and anxiety provoking. Even half asleep, I could easily see the contrast between the everyday angst of my own ‘regular life’ and the unruffled manner associated with island living. I wondered, could I ever live that way? Could I adopt such a relaxed, in the moment, one step at a time, ‘don’t worry, be happy’ attitude? Perhaps it was food for thought – but later.
At the airport, we dragged our suitcases to the counter where we were told it was too late to check them. Apparently the machines are timed to shut down when the deadline is reached. And we had not met that deadline. Maybe it was the look of desperation in our eyes, the kind that comes with having had to reschedule every leg of our trip thus far, that inspired an impromptu conference among the few employees still left in that part of the terminal.
Whatever the cause, it was suggested that they might be able, perhaps, maybe (but-don’t-get-your-hopes-up), to issue our luggage tags manually. A protracted discussion on the pros and cons and probability of success of such an action ensued as we watched the clock on the wall tick away minutes that felt like hours. Finally, consensus was reached and a green light was given for the manual process to be implemented. However, since this was an unusual (archaic even) request, it would be necessary to find someone who could actually do such a thing! More conversation among more employees produced the name of a possible candidate and someone was dispatched to find him.
Soon, a man with a broad smile sauntered to the counter, commenting on the lateness of our arrival. A silent “Yes, we know we are late, that’s why we need you to hurry…” passed between H and I as we watched him coax our luggage documents from the machine. Thanking him profusely, we ran our freshly tagged bags to the next obstacle in our board-your-plane relay. We relinquished control of our bags to two friendly women who hoisted them onto a conveyor belt, laughing when they saw the manually produced tags.
“You’re running late,” one commented.
“Yes,” we smiled.
“You might make it,” the other added, as if to lift our spirits.
We then sprinted towards security, and, looking back, H remarked in a matter-of-fact tone, “You know we’ll never see them again" (our bags). I agreed, looking back to see my royal blue suitcase with its proud Canada strap disappear though a rubber-curtained wall.
Fortunately, our first class tickets facilitated a quick security check and landed us at the head of a line already in the process of boarding the plane. Once on board, seatbelts fastened snugly around our waists, we clicked glasses of freshly-squeezed orange juice, congratulating ourselves! H reminded me, a hint of pride in his voice, that only one hour ago we were sound asleep at our hotel!
Our flight took less than three hours. The skies were clear and the Caribbean Sea was at its most sparkling emerald in the morning light. The patterns produced by currents and would-be islands were dazzling from this angle and I quickly used up the memory on my iphone camera (note to self: next phone needs more memory!).
Tortola was amazing, but not for the faint of heart or the sure-footed impaired! The roads, narrow, steep and uneven, snake their way up hills that peak in a rainforest atmosphere. It is hard to keep a sense of perspective as you travel from one part of the island to another. While your ears tell you that you are going up or down, the extreme and unusual visual cues work to scramble your brain! If you are susceptible to vertigo – or suffer from acrophobia, as do I – the result of your tour of the main island in BVI might be a curious mixture of motion sickness, terror and euphoria! But no matter how you feel – you know you are alive!
Brother H and I spent four nights at Brewer’s Bay, a beautiful secluded beach that is usually calm, I’m told. However, on Tuesday, when I set out to paint on location by the water’s edge I was treated to white caps and surfer-style waves! My senses on overdrive, it took awhile to get settled down to paint. It was then that I realized I left my brushes back in my suite at the villa. Fortunately (or not) my travel watercolour kit had one small, but good quality, brush.
As it turned out, a lack of brushes was the least of my problems. Not only had I not painted plein air for quite some time, I was completely overwhelmed by the unfamiliar, beautiful, and slightly wild landscape before me. I found the odd shapes of Caribbean flora and fauna, coupled with the aqua and azure colours of the sea, totally mesmerizing. Added to this was the sound of the constant pounding of the surf, mist whipping against my face, and the taste of salt on my lips! And if that were not enough, pelicans, with their pterodactyl silhouette, provided even more visual stimuli as they paraded in front of me taking turns diving straight into the ocean. I felt as though my head were on a swivel! Bottom line? I couldn’t settle down enough to focus. I did a few colour studies and then, when the rain started (from out of nowhere), I took it as a sign to call it a day!
On my walk back to the villa, I took pictures of banana plants, palm trees, and the ever present chickens and roosters with their bright colours and iridescent feathers. I realized then that the best use of my time here would be to study and photograph whatever caught my eye, thus taking off any pressure to ‘produce.’ I rationalized this change in plans as following ‘doctor’s orders’ to ‘be kind to myself.’ I decided to wait until I got to Cayman to do any more painting. By that time, I reasoned, I would be more familiar with the landscape and perhaps more confident in taking it on.
So my days were filled with light sketching, reading, and thinking – on the beach, and as I wandered through the meandering streets of Road Town, when brother H was working at his office there. During our four days, he showed me different parts of the island, including the home where where he and his family had lived for several years, and some of the local hangouts. Each night we found a different place to watch the sunset; the sky was amazing as the land masses! Clouds morphed and colours blended one into another within minutes, like a time-lapse animation.
On Friday we needed to catch the ferry for the next leg of our trip. As H got our tickets at the dock, I went to get us some coffee for the ride. H cautioned me that it might be cutting it close timewise and I should keep an eye on my watch. But since it was more than a half hour till boarding, and the coffee shop was not far, I decided to chance it. When I got there a line reaching out the door onto the street had already formed. With little time to spare – and really wanting a latte – I managed to wangle my way to the front of the line, appealing to local generosity and tourist empathy.
Finally, with two cups in hand, and the clock ticking into the last 10 minutes before our ferry was to leave, I ran (literally) back to the ferry terminal. There are no sidewalks in most of Road Town, so I took my chances in the center of the street, maneuvering between potholes and around cobblestones, looking up only once – to see a police car stopped directly in front of me! With a kind and laid-back smile, the officer said, “Slow down, take it easy…no need to hurry.” I agreed with him, but didn’t take his advice. I did, however, make it to the ferry just as boarding had begun! H and I had a pleasant ride sipping our Tortola coffees enoute back to St. Thomas.
Our adventure began with a bit of a snag. Our flight to Tortola (BVI) was to have an overnight stopover in Philadelphia and an early morning flight directly to the sunny Caribbean. However, the day we chose to leave Nova Scotia was the same day as one of the worst snow storms to hit the east coast of the United States in recorded time! Not only were we grounded in Philadelphia – the airport itself was completely shut down for two days! No flights in or out! It was Friday afternoon when we arrived and we weren’t able to leave the airport hotel (where, luckily, we had a room) until Sunday night! And even then, we would not be headed to Tortola as planned, but to Charlotte in North Carolina for another overnight before flying to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands on Monday morning.
But all was not wasted. The delay in plans allowed me to spend some quality time with my much younger brother. He was about 8 when I left home for college. Most of my memories of his early years were of babysitting – a chore not well appreciated by a young teenage girl! Over the years we saw each other at family gatherings and when he moved from Nova Scotia to Toronto I visited him there a few times there. But there was not much quality time for two people who share a whole lot of DNA! Getting to know him now, as an adult, has been a real gift.
It is amazing how many topics you can discuss when you’re snowed in! Not only was the airport closed, but the city was shut down as well. Looking out the window of the hotel room, H remarked that the storm ‘didn’t look that bad.’ I agreed, but then we’re from Canada, and no strangers to snow! I quipped that at home we wouldn’t even close the schools for this amount of snow. I exaggerate – but only a little. Anyhow, Canada is equipped to handle snowstorms – it’s what we do. Not so for the more southern parts of our shared east coast. So we waited, eating Philly cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, talking, watching movies and a marathon of ‘The Office’ episodes on Netflix. In fact, I was having such a good time I wouldn’t even have minded another day or so!
On early Sunday afternoon we made our way (without going outside) to the desolated airport to wait for our North Carolina flight, scheduled to leave at 7:45pm. It was a long wait, but since H had access to the only open lounge in the terminal it wasn’t so bad. We had internet access: H did some business and watched a movie while I crocheted half a shawl, played Sudoku, and began a book I bought when the airport stores finally opened (an autobiography by Carly Simon – which, as a big fan of James Taylor – I am loving!). As the time for our flight to leave approached, the departure board showed short delay after short delay – culminating in a very long delay.
It was after midnight when we finally boarded the plane – we had to wait for a flight crew to arrive from another trip. I felt bad for them – they looked fairly worn out. I would have also worried that the pilot’s attention might be compromised due to lack of sleep, but I had taken my Ativan by then so I barely gave it a thought! Once on board (first class section with those oddly shaped seats that fully recline in little individual pod-like compartments – my first experience of this!), it was at least another hour before we took off for a flight that was expected to be about 30 minutes.
It was after 2am when we arrived at the hotel in Charlotte. Because of the scheduling nightmare experienced by airlines and hotels, the only suitable room we could get was in a wing of a Doubletree hotel (usually an okay kind of place) under construction. We wheeled our suitcases over plastic drop sheets, around stacks of ceiling tiles, paint cans, doors, ladders, and various types of carpentry tools. Our next flight was scheduled for early the next morning so we grabbed a few hours sleep before going back to the airport to ‘hurry up and wait’ again.
This flight was smooth and relatively on time – all things being equal. First class again (I’m going to travel with my brother more often!); a smooth flight landing three hours later on the island of St. Thomas. The sunny south at last!
All that was left was to catch the ferry to Tortola. That meant another customs check. I’d forgotten how ‘different’ this experience is in the Caribbean. My brother went through, they merely glanced at his passport. He walked through a scanner, which buzzed, but the woman on duty didn’t bother to get him to do it again; she just waved him through. I had a carry-on bag slightly bigger than his and the agent would not let me pass until I back and checked it. She was adamant that I not take it on board. When I returned I walked by her to the security checkpoint; she didn’t even try to stop me or ask to see my passport. The scanner buzzed as I went through, but again, no big deal – she waved me through as well.
We found outside seats at the back of the boat just as the ferry was pulling away. We looked back when we heard a woman’s voice coming the deck of a restaurant beside the dock, She was waving her arms and pointing to a backpack. The captain backed up the ferry so the woman could toss the backpack directly from the restaurant to the boat! So much for security!
The ferry ride took about a half hour. The colour of the clear blue/green water reflecting a sky of the same colour, the islands poking out of the ocean, the soft warm salt spray, and gentle rocking of the boat made me feel like I was a kid again. Finally, the most excellent part of our excellent adventure was starting to kick in!
I’ve been looking forward to this trip for so many reasons, the first of which was to see whether I could do it. I’ve been wanting to for years. And I may have a bit earlier, if not for a number (large number) of family incidents. But after a year of dullness marked the first anniversary of earning my doctorate, I felt that if I didn’t do something, I may as well just close up shop and wait to die. This is not an uncommon feeling for someone suffering from depression. I felt myself gradually slip into that state. I could see it coming – a great grey cloud of gloom muting, if not extinguishing anything light and happy in my life. Many things in my external world were quite good (did I say I finished a doctorate…), but other things, mostly things involving family were picking away at what people used to call my perky outlook.
Yes, I know I ‘allowed’ it to happen. But that’s just the thing about depression – it doesn’t need your permission. First, for whatever reason, your world becomes smaller. You make up excuses about not socializing and people cut you some slack because they can see your external problems too, and perhaps empathize from their own experience. “I don’t know how you do it,” or “you have so much on your plate right now,” are heard often expressions. Gradually, as you fall into the pit that is depression, you find that you are not socializing because you have “too much on your plate,” but because you’re afraid. When you do go out in public for social purposes or obligations, mostly you end up crying (sobbing even) in front of people you don’t know, and worse – those you know well. No one likes to do that. And it makes other people feel pretty uncomfortable as well.
Soon, even after some of the pressures of external problems let up (only some) and you have more time from temporary partial resolutions of your problems, the depression doesn’t just go away and you begin to see that you will never be able to go back to your perky Pollyanna past. Having had a perky Pollyanna past myself, I wasn’t prepared to deal with the perfect storm of crappy stuff that came my way. Not only were my Pollyanna reserves drained, the apparatus for ‘refueling’ myself was broken – smashed to shreds even. Given the circumstances the only thing I could do was nothing – and then feel really badly about it. Many days were just given over to the looming gloom. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t plan, – hell, I couldn’t even play! Most days I didn’t bother to get dressed, it seemed futile – given a cost/benefit analysis of the energy it would require to do it.
Even the sound of the phone ringing raised my anxiety level at least three points; answering would have been impossible without lorazepam. I rarely answered emails. I had nothing to say – or, better put: nothing I could say. I would list the things that caused anxiety (the root of my depression) and concluded that anyone else with this much negativity going on in their life would probably fare no better. Of course that didn’t help. Funny thing about depression: when you’re depressed misery does not love company – actually, not company in any form.
I could write much more on what it feels like to be depressed but I’ve only recently started to climb out of the pit and I’m seriously worried about falling backward. It’s not that I only look on the sunny side (after having relearned there is a sunny side) that keeps me moving forward, but the drugs – o, the drugs – that seem, at least for now, to be doing their job. My job in the recovery process is to do whatever I can to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
And so, back to the trip…
There were lots of other reasons to make this trip – too much snow in Nova Scotia when last year’s near record amounts were still fresh in my mind. A change of scenery is always helpful, and spending time with my much younger brother was also appealing. So I decided to cash in on a long-standing invitation to visit him, my brother. I agreed to accompany him home from his recent visit with our parents.
Oh, and ‘home’ for my bother is Grand Cayman. Enroute, he needed stop over in Tortola for a few days for some business meetings. I’m fine with that. Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands, and was his home until about five years ago. Although often invited I had never been there, so I thought – possibly – this trip could be an adventure for me. A badly needed adventure. A “most excellent” one – even better!
I’ve been trying for days to write a blog under my original mandate: religion and how it serves both to bond and to separate us. I had lots of things planned to fill in some background about the origins of the Christian tradition as it became legitimized under Constantine (Edict of Milan, 313 CE). I wanted to write about some of the interesting variations of Christianity that were trampled by Athanasius (296ish to 373 CE) – like Arianism, named for its leader Arius (250ish to 336 CE) and the even more interesting theological debate a generation later between Augustine (354-430) and Pelagius (360-418). But maybe another time…
As I was getting my facts together to write, the shootings in San Bernardino happened. I became totally engrossed by the tragic events that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded (of course, that number applies only to those physically wounded by the event). I watched CNN and read the New York Times incessantly as new information was released, and I tried to make sense of it all. But you can’t make sense of something that is senseless – no matter how hard you try. I became traumatized and incapable of writing even a simple sentence.
So today is my first attempt to ‘get back on the horse,’ so to speak.
But how does one go on from here: especially when the horror of such atrocities is added to previous recent horrors (Paris, etc.)? How can one deal with persons or groups who cannot or will not listen to reason? As politicians scrambled to react ‘appropriately’ to this latest act of terror, except for Donald Trump of course, I experienced a serious lapse of hope in our collective future.
Killing over religious differences is not new – religious wars go back almost as far as human history. When one religion thinks it has the ‘truth,’ the one and only religious truth, there is no room for authentic acceptance of others who disagree. It’s a matter of simple logic: if there is only one truth and I have it, then, if you disagree with me, your view about truth must be wrong. But this is too simple.
There are many nuances regarding religions that are left unexplored by those who kill in its name. Not only is it arrogant for any one group to claim a monopoly on religious truth, it is irreverent as well (hubris being one of the deadly sins). Evolving as we have over the past hundreds of thousands of years (with a possibility of further evolution for hundreds of thousands more), how can any of us think that, if there is a God, we know exactly what that means? That there are so many different expressions of God (from diverse religions over a broad span of history) suggests to me that ‘God’ must be more creative than our primitive brains and limited imaginations can comprehend. In fact, the more we claim to know about God, the more our ignorance about the divine is revealed.
Human beings (of all races and religions) share 99.9% of our DNA! This makes us, in essence, a human family. Perhaps if we could absorb this reality more fully, we might come to view killing each other as a form of domestic violence. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, radicalization, or some other thing blurring our vision, one thing remains: killing fellow members of our human family is wrong, and doing it in the name of God - well, that’s downright inhuman. A God who would demand or even condone such an action is unworthy of the name.
NOVEMBER 23, 2015
It was one year ago that I graduated from University of Toronto’s Regis College with a doctorate in practical theology (D.Min.). Finally at the end of years of study (including thesis writing), I was left feeling stunned, worn out. Questions from almost everyone I ran into began with, “What are you going to do now?” Problem was – I had not really thought beyond the process itself. I mean, I did have a vision going in, but I felt as though it was pounded out of me during the process. I felt lost. But…
On the other hand, I also learned lots of interesting stuff and it would be sad if I did not find a way to share it. That’s one reason for this blog.
I chose blogging as an alternative to traditional academic options (writing a book, journal articles, teaching, etc.) because here I can discuss the issues that matter most to me without someone looking over my shoulder to make sure I don’t stray from the norms of traditional academic and religious institutions. (How naïve to think creativity would be welcomed with open arms by either institution!) I shall try to be positive in this endeavor, but ask forgiveness ahead of time for if when I revert to a somewhat jaded perspective. My overall goal here is to help, not to complain…
Also, because of the self-restricted brevity of these blog postings (to prevent the reader from getting bored, and me from having to writes scores of words to qualify every little detail…), I will try to hit general points and themes that might stimulate or provoke further investigation, depending on your perspective. I will also try to offer resources from time to time. One more caveat: My primary emphasis here will be on Western religious traditions because that is what I have spent my life studying. This is not to dismiss Eastern religions (which, actually, I have sometimes found more personally satisfying), but to offer insights and perspectives on Western religious thought that I think have been neglected or overlooked.
Oh, and one last thing. It is not my intension (EVER) to proselytize; the goal of understanding the power and weaknesses of religion has, for me, been a life-long quest.
01. Does Religion Matter?
For those involved in a religious tradition, the question of whether religion matters may seem like a no-brainer. But for the growing number of those who have extricated themselves from religion, or who have observed only as outsiders, it may be helpful to look at the role it has played in the evolution of human civilization.
Our story – as a human family – goes back much further than the few thousand years of recorded history on which we usually focus. In fact, viewed from a much distanced perspective, we may note that the branch of the evolutionary tree of life to which we are attached is quite recent in the overall scheme of things – hundreds of thousands of years compared to the earth’s billions. Even so, it seems we often fail to take account the possibility that we have at least as much time ahead of us as behind.
Think, for example, of the many changes in the relatively short span of our recorded history. Or how much our use of technology has changed in even the past few hundred years! Against this backdrop, we may see our wars against each other as the mere temper tantrums of juvenile siblings. That human beings as they now exist present the flowering blossom at the end of our evolutionary branch is unlikely. Surely our best ideas are not behind us. (On the broader evolutionary points I’ve been influenced by the work of my husband, the philosopher J. L. Schellenberg. For more on his ideas, see Evolutionary Religion (Oxford, 2013.)
Leaving aside arguments of whether humans will destroy the environment we need for survival or blow each other up with nuclear or other doomsday weapons – or whether an asteroid or some other natural disaster will do us in like the dinosaurs, it’s important to consider what it means to think of the present chapter of our existence as nearer the beginning of our overall story than the end.
So what has this to do with religion?
While our physical bodies have evolved little in recent millennia, cultural evolution has progressed in leaps and bounds – flying off in myriad directions. Very early on, the development of religion helped to create bonds between people in small groups. Working together for a common good (like food, shelter, and protection), individual communities developed religions that helped to strengthen community ties. As civilizations grew, religious practice marked distinctions between groups while fostering a shared identity. Conflict among early bands of humans vying for limited resources required team work and religion played an important role in creating loyalty among members.
Because survival was the preeminent goal in ancient times, attention was not given to the far away future (not hundreds of years, let alone thousands of years). Even structures like the pyramids served immediate concerns - like honoring and housing the dead. That they remain and function primarily as tourist attractions in the 21st century would probably have made some pharaohs turn over in their comfortable graves!
So, as we can see, religion played an essential role in our human evolution. Perhaps such strong ties could have developed through other means (and maybe they sometimes did), but as far as we know today, it was religion that provided the strong bonds of belonging needed for these early bands to survive. Religion mattered very much – then. But what happened?