Authenticity Can Be A Lonely Road

I’ve always admired bonobos—largely for their ability to maintain a peaceful community. Other apes, like chimps, also have communities, but peace is not really one of their hallmarks. But there is another ape that runs a close second on my list of favorite non-human primates—the orangutan.

They are smart. They are creative. They are (generally) loners.

Take, for example, their approach to problem solving. According to the San Diego Zoo:

“If a chimpanzee is given an oddly shaped peg and several different holes to try to put it in, the chimpanzee immediately tries shoving the peg in various holes until it finds the correct hole. But an orangutan approaches the challenge quite differently. It may stare off into space or even scratch itself with the peg. Then, after a while, it offhandedly sticks the peg into the correct hole while looking at something else that has caught its interest!”

Honestly, what’s not to love about that sort of analytical thinking?

But also, I’ve always wondered what made them loners. Do they hate playing orangutan politics? Hate small talk? Do other orangutan’s harsh their vibe? Did they reach a point where they just can’t even?

Humans evolved for communities; it is a large part of our survival as a species. I believe that, even if I sometimes feel it is easier said than done. Many introverts, like myself, find people requiring energy reserves we don’t have. I mean, I’m able to summon them, but I really collapse at the end of the day.

But what can also be difficult in communities are the frequent spoken and unspoken restrictions on being part of the in-group; this can be problematic when it comes to keeping authenticity and existentialist values, especially in religious communities.

Over at his blog, biblical scholar (and friend of mine), Peter Enns writes (“The Hardest Thing for Me about What I Do“) about this difficulty of belonging when—for lack of a better word—you’re a round peg in a square hole. It is a post that resonated with me.

Pete frequently writes about the Bible and his faith in ways that are very authentic to who he is. (Something I’ve always appreciated about him.) His scholarship frequently leads him to draw unpopular conclusions—especially by evangelical standards. He’s comfortable(-ish) with uncertainty. He even wrote a book on it (The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs).

“When you write about God, Jesus, and the Bible,” he says, “you’re going to be controversial for somebody. And, if several thousand years of recorded history are any indication, some people are probably going to be very, very, very angry with you for uttering thoughts about ultimate reality that they don’t like. They might even hate you (in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God).”

But “Over-the-top negativity isn’t the hard part,” he adds. “What’s hard is losing friends, a community, a sense of belonging, a shared narrative.”

This is something I get. Over my lifetime I’ve been Free Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian, only to land outside of Christianity entirely as a secular humanist. For part of this journey, I was what my family was; I was raised a pastor’s kid, so that’s how we roll. But as an adult, I kept discovering many things about life that did not fit with the Bible or with the way I encountered the world. I opted to go where the evidence (as I see it) took me.

In fact, when I was a student of his, it was Pete’s book, Incarnation and Inspiration, that (in retrospect) provided a temporary perspective—a stop-gap—enabling me to hold on to my faith a little bit longer than I might have otherwise. It gave me time to figure things out.

And yet, despite my intentions to stay, I eventually did leave.

Even though I thought I was, I was never that great at accepting the idea of an infallible book, obeying the circumscribed demands of confessions and faith statements, or kneeling before popes or gods. My curiosity keeps me from sitting on my hands; it forces me to ask questions and to embrace unexpected answers. It forces me to accept answers—often tough answers. It was the fuel behind my journey.

“I don’t know how not to turn things around in my head,” as Pete put it. I get that too.

At each step of my journey, this meant moving on from the comfort of a community—even leaving my faculty position in a seminary. I never wanted to stay where I didn’t belong. This inevitably meant that the venn diagram of what connected me to others changed. Sometimes we have more friends of circumstances than we do kindred spirits. When that moment passes, we salute them and move on to another stage in life.

“It’s not so much about friends becoming enemies,” Pete reasons, “but the more subtle disorientation of not really fitting anywhere. The insider becomes the outsider. Nothing unravels a social fabric quicker. I get it. No one likes their social fabric unraveled. It keeps us warm and safe. No offense taken.”

And I also get this. I’ve never found a perfect solution to this dilemma—though I do have a spouse who totally gets me. When what you do is a source of cognitive dissonance for others who want the comfort of certainty, it means finding oneself along a lonely road. And maybe some of us are just more like orangutans than bonobos.

In any case, I’m still a work in progress. I have opted for keeping friends where I can: humanist, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. In each case, I find kinship to varying degrees based on shared values like freedom of thought and expression, love of science, equality and human rights.

We are a community where our roads intersect. I’ve grown to appreciate that, and maybe that is better than nothing.


Photo: Tegan Mierle on Unsplash